In his September 15 speech to the nation, President Bush asserted that poverty in America is mostly restricted to the nation’s Southern states.Like a lot of right-wing ideologues when it comes to issues of race andpoverty in America, he’s in denial.
Many Republicans seem to believe that poverty is confined to one region ofthe nation, that the past (i.e. what Bush called a “history of racialdiscrimination”) should shoulder the blame for the problem, and thatindividuals make choices that determine their station in life. Bush’ssupporters hold the White House and the Republican agenda blameless, andargue that the president’s vision for building an “ownership society” willenable America’s poor to build a better life for themselves and their families.
The first thing wrong with such arguments is that poverty is not simplyfound in the deep South, as Bush suggested in primetime. Poverty is a factof life in every city and state nationwide. Sociologist Andrew Beveridge(at the request of the New York Times) recently conducted an economicsurvey of New York City and confirmed what other studies have alreadyshown–that New York is divided between the rich and the poor. Thisfabulously wealthy city has more than its share of entrenched poverty andracial economic disparities.
In the Bronx, the poverty rate is 30.6 percent, outranked only by threeborder counties in Texas where living costs are far lower. Overall, NewYork City’s poverty rate was 21.8 percent, and people of color are morethan twice as likely to be poor as non-Hispanic whites. Beveridge’s studyrevealed as well that the bottom fifth of Manhattan’s income-earners arepaid two cents for each dollar that the top fifth currently earns.Economist Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute argues that Manhattan by itself is actually “an amplified microcosm” of poverty in the nation at large. (Manhattan is also leading the way when it comes toanother ominous trend: as the Fiscal Policy Institute recently warned, the city’smiddle class is being wiped out.)
America’s claim to shame is that it has the highest level of poverty inthe industrialized world. Bush’s four and a half years of trickle-downtheories have failed miserably. The poor have become even poorer. Thenation’s poverty rate has climbed from a 27 year low of 11.3 percent to12.7 percent last year. Thirty seven million Americans are living belowthe poverty line, a group so large, Newsweek‘s Jonathan Alter pointed outin a post-Katrina cover article, that it amounts to “a nation of poorpeople the size of Canada or Morocco living inside the United States.”
Bush may talk about addressing poverty in this rich nation, but hiscoldhearted agenda has made the problems much more pronounced. Hisadministration gave a massive tax break to corporations and thewealthiest individuals in his first term; since then, despite evidence ofrising income inequalities, a growing sea of red ink, and $200 billionneeded to fight the war in Iraq and another $200 billion we will spend torebuild the Gulf region, Bush has ruled out repealing any of his tax cutsfor the rich.(And this while household incomes failed to rise for fiveconsecutive years–for the first time on record.)
Bush leads a Republican party that has refused to increase the minimumwage (stuck at $5.15 an hour since 1997), tried to cut Medicaid, foodstamps, housing for the poor, Social Security, and promoted “faith-basedinitiatives” to rally “armies of compassion” that are supposed to assistthe poor through the right-wing panacea of charitable, religious giving.His Gulf Opportunity Zone is a sham. And while this White House tries tocut worker’s pay in rebuilding the Gulf region, it lines the pockets ofthose poster boys of corruption–Halliburton and KBR–with no-bidcontracts. As Derrick Jackson wrote in the Boston Globe last week, Bush’splan “will squeeze yet more pulp out of the poor.”
If there is a bright spot amidst the despair and catastrophe, it is thatsome in the mainstream media have started addressing issues ofpoverty, race and class in America. I don’t know how long this momentwill last. But if some in the big media consistently and aggressivelyreport on poverty and class as central issues in US politics and society–and a few leading political figures find the political will, theimagination and the courage to fight for policies that have proven to workin tackling such an intractable problem–maybe we will see some progress.