by Roland S. Martin
When Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) raised the issue of the anger and despair among poor African Americans due to failing schools and rampant poverty in several recent speeches, the general consensus among the media elite was “been there, heard that.”
In fact, the focus in the aftermath of his speech wasn’t actually on the problems of poverty, but on his mention of riots. That must have been sexier than the real issue he was raising.
Whether we want to admit to it or not, poverty is forever on the backburner in the minds of most people. That is, unless we are put in that position â€” or hit up for money by our poor family members.
The initial reaction to the cries of help after Hurricane Katrina was tremendous. But poverty isn’t a one-shot deal; it must be dealt with in a much stronger and more sustained way.
Many may have assumed that after Katrina, the face of poverty is that of an African American. But to act as if whites, along with Hispanics, are not poor, is a huge mistake.
According to the 2005 U.S. Census, 37 million Americans lived in poverty, including 13 million children. Between 1993 and 2000, the poverty rate was on the decline. Yet from 2001 to 2005, it was on the rise.
The National Poverty Center reports that “poverty rates for blacks and Hispanics greatly exceed the national average. In 2004, 24.7 percent of blacks and 21.9 percent of Hispanics were poor, compared to 8.6 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 9.8 percent of Asians.”
So is the nation’s poor confined to Chicago, Detroit or Compton, Calif.? No. Under the headline “Vital Signs,” the Wall Street Journal reported this week on the top 20 states with the highest percentages of individuals living below the poverty level in 2005. Those were: Mississippi, Louisiana, Washington, D.C., New Mexico, West Virginia, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, Montana, Arizona, Oregon, Idaho, New York and South Dakota.
I’ll be that if you took a tour of Montana, Idaho, Oregon, West Virginia, South Dakota, and significant portions of Georgia and Alabama, you would see a large number of whites who would raise their hands if a poverty count were done.
Now, we all know that no one is truly campaigning for the poor vote. Candidates may generally raise the issue, but poverty didn’t come up in the first two Republican debates. The Democrats also conveniently ignored the issue.
I fault them, but also those moderating the discussion. They were in charge of asking the questions, and should have done a much better job of dealing with the issue.
I got to thinking about poor white Americans when I was talking with a friend about the 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns of the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.
Although he was defined as “the black candidate,” Jackson was often ignored when he raised the plight of farmers in Iowa, rural citizens in Alabama and the working poor in West Virginia. Ask political observers on the campaign trail and you will see a candidate who was equally at ease in the slums of Harlem as he was in the dilapidated portions of Georgia.
Yet among those top 20 poor states, Democrats often lose to the GOP. There are multiple reasons â€” God and guns are at the top of the list â€” but part of the issue is that Dems have not been able to connect with voters in those states on issues that truly affect them. If they are effective at reaching out to poor blacks, why ignore poor whites?
If I were Obama â€” or Sen. Hillary Clinton, former Sen. John Edwards or any of the other candidates â€” I would take time off from raising big bundles of cash in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago to take the campaign to those small, out-of-the-way towns that never get to see a presidential candidate. Go to the schools that look like they belong in a Third World nation. Visit the rural towns where the lone hospital has closed up, and the town’s poor must drive miles just to see a doctor. Check out the areas where the infant mortality rate rivals that of developing countries.
Bring the cameras and notepads to these forgotten places and show America what it often ignores.
Many of these towns, especially in the South, are separated because of years of racial separation. You stay on your side of town, I stay on mine. But a poor white man may not realize that he may have more in common with his black brother, and that is a lack of economic and educational opportunities.
The skin of both may be different, but their different hues will never help them pay their bills. Broke is broke.