The president has done some great things. . . . Poverty rates are way down.
—Senator Joseph Lieberman, Meet the Press, NBC, August 13
Incomes Up, Poverty Is Down
—headline, The New York Times, September 27, reporting on Census Bureau report
Nearly 19 percent of U.S. children—about 13.3 million—live in poverty.
—Education Week, September 29
More than 21 percent of all black people went hungry or lived on the edge of hunger in 1999, the highest percentage of any racial group. A large percentage of Hispanics, 20.8 percent, faced a similar situation.
—U.S. Agriculture Department report, The New York Times, September 10
In the depth of the Great Depression, I was listening, late at night, to the radio. Later that year, the man from the finance company would come to take it away. There was a remote broadcast from the Panther Room in Chicago, and I could hear the clinking glasses as the announcer described the posh surroundings and bibulous people. He introduced the featured jazz musician, Thomas “Fats” Waller. The pianist-singer came to the mike and asked, “I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight?”
America’s poor were discovered by the press and some politicians in 1962 when Michael Harrington—who then often appeared in the Voice—wrote The Other America: Poverty in the United States.
When he succeeded John Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty. In 1993, Ronald Reagan noted we “declared a war on poverty, and poverty won.”
The poor have remained invisible during the current presidential campaign, while Al Gore and George W. Bush proclaim their deep concern for the middle class. But Ralph Nader, who was frozen out of the corporate-sponsored presidential debates on television, recalls the commitment of Mike Harrington when he says:
“More than 20 percent of children in our country are growing up in harsh poverty—by far the highest percentage among comparable countries in the Western world.”
Education Week—one of my primary sources, along with The Chronicle of Higher Education, for news on schools from kindergarten all the way up—reports in its September 29 issue that “families are leaving the welfare rolls but not moving out of poverty.” However, Gore and Hillary Clinton keep celebrating the salubrious results of the Clinton-Gore “welfare reform.”
Also noted in Education Week is that “since 1989, the number of children living in ‘working poor’ families has grown dramatically. Those are families in which at least one parent works 50 or more weeks a year, but the household income is still below the poverty line, which stood at $16,000 for a family of four in 1998.”
Moreover, while widespread poverty is ignored in what are euphemistically called America’s “inner cities,” the National Center for Children in Poverty discloses that “of the 5.2 million children under six living in poverty in 1997, 60 percent lived outside urban areas, including 37 percent in the suburbs and 23 percent in rural communities.”
In the first Gore-Bush televised debate—the one likely to have had the largest audience—”America’s moderator,” Jim Lehrer, did not ask a single question about what the poor were doing that night. But how often are the poor mentioned in his Public Broadcasting Service News Hour—or on any of the television networks, including cable?
The most vividly detailed, chilling report I’ve seen about the Other America, circa 2000, is in the October issue of the revitalized George magazine. Writer Dale Maharidge and photographer Michael Williamson won a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1990 for their book And Their Children After Them, which was the result of 10 years of “riding freight trains and interviewing homeless job seekers.”
This time, for George, “we drove more than 6000 miles, from Washington, D.C., to Tennessee and Texas and back, visiting some of these 13.5 million poor children [and their families], including those minutes from where both Al Gore and George W. Bush live and work.
“In the backyards of the two major-party candidates, we found working people as desperate as the homeless we had met in the 1980s.” (Emphasis added.)
I have told Paul Wellstone about this truly investigative report because he is one of the exceedingly few members of Congress who think about the poor. I recommend it to anyone who believes that a vote for Gore, let alone Bush, will change the lives of those millions abandoned in the Other America.
Both Bush and Gore declined Maharidge’s requests for interviews. “Poverty,” he writes dryly, “is not an issue either side is likely to discuss.”
Maharidge points out that “Texas and Tennessee rank near the bottom in the Children’s Rights Council’s rankings of the best states in which to raise a child. Texas is 48th, Tennessee 38th. Washington, D.C., is 51st.”
Will that part of his legacy be in the Clinton presidential library?
Maharidge writes: “The U.S. ranks a shameful 16th, among industrialized nations, in efforts to lift children out of poverty.”
He did finally reach Elaine Kamarck, Al Gore’s senior analyst on domestic policy and one of the operatives involved in removing from this year’s Democratic Platform a proposal for increased spending on the poor and those children both Gore and Bush are so concerned about.
Kamarck told Maharidge that she couldn’t talk about the candidate’s views on lifting up the poor. “Not then or ever, she makes clear,” Maharidge reports.
And after quoting the Department of Agriculture that Texas is “second from the bottom in terms of people going hungry,” Maharidge cites George Bush’s response: “Where? You’d think the governor would have heard if there are pockets of hunger in Texas.”