THE BLOG

India, Katrina, and the Bailout: How Poor People Everywhere Are Being Neglected

01/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Written beside the American creed of hating terrorists and loving the Irish and Italians should be the footnote and we ignore poor people. Poor people always get the shit end of every deal usually because they can't get the attention of politicians or pundits, and because of this the poor people in New Orleans and India have a lot in common.

India has more than 100,000 millionaires, and is creating new ones at a rate rivaled only be Russia. Meanwhile, nearly half of Mumbai's 14-18 million residents live in slums. In the United States, poor people suffer under a specialized caste system that masquerades as a functioning democracy. In the good ole' US of A, the top 10 percent, roughly those earning more than $100,000, reached a level of income share not seen since before the Depression.

Yet, in the 2008 election, neither major candidate uttered the word "poor" in the thousands of hours clocked speaking into cameras. But the sickness of ignoring the poor goes beyond John McCain and Barack Obama. The United States government and the corporate media systematically ignore the suffering of the poor, too.

Whether observing FEMA's shameful handling of post-Katrina New Orleans or the situation in India, it's pretty clear that governments and corporate media only care about disasters if they involve rich, affluent people. If poor people are drowning, the government takes weeks to throw them rafts. If their slums wallow in poverty and violence for years, the cameras only arrive when terrorists bomb a luxury hotel in Mumbai.

Meanwhile, the United States Treasury department takes poor people's tax dollars and funnels them into Wall Street corporations that are tanking because of their own failed policies. Nevermind that millions of poor people may now lose their homes. Nevermind that America's infrastructure is crumbling and its schools continue to deteriorate, including the schools in Olmsted Falls, which facetiously asked for $100 billion in bailout money. The superintendent, Todd Hoadley, said the bailout would "repay the district's cost of meeting federal mandates under the federal No Child Left Behind law, such as testing, tutoring and remediation."

That sounds pretty reasonable, but unfortunately Hoadley isn't a billionaire CEO so he's out of luck. Most of the world shares this crappy deal. Almost half the world (around three billion people) live on less than $2.50 a day. Eighty percent lives on less than $10 a day. Worse, another eighty percent live in countries where the wealth disparity is widening, and that includes America.

We all know that poverty is a really big issue, but what people don't always understand is that being poor makes individuals invisible. Money buys access to more than shelter and food. Money buys media attention.

The recent attack in Mumbai is a good example of this. India has been attacked many times over the past decade, but the media blitz only arrived when rich people became the victims of terrorists. Vijay Prashad, Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, commented on Democracy Now:

The media had not really called any of the other attacks in Mumbai, and there have been many since 1992, 9/11, precisely because most of those attacks the have taken place in areas which afflicted the working poor, working-class, and middle-class people. This attack, for the first time, targeted places of the top elite. Very expensive hotels, leading restaurants, and this therefore, brought this kind of assault into the bedrooms, into the restaurant of the elite.

In 2001, 700 people died in the Gujarat riots. Though it has adopted a market economy, Gujarat is still home to many poor people, which may explain why this riot received considerably less attention than the Mumbai attack. In 2007, riots exploded in India's Rajasthan state. Poor people demanded that they be included in an affirmative action quota which would give them access to government jobs and other benefits. Fourteen people died. This past summer, 250 people were arrested in India when thousands of people flooded the streets to protest the power outages that left residents sweltering in the summer heat.

Yet the media's attention has been almost entirely focused on the attack of a fancy hotel. Calling the attack Mumbai's 9/11 seems to be an excuse to push through some very Draconian laws that do little to stem actual terrorist violence. Americans experienced the same thing post-9/11 with the Patriot Act, which resulted in no arrests of domestic terrorists, but successfully violated the rights of many poor Americans. Once again, the powers that be will use a disaster to further repress poor people.

And this is all about repression. Before, during, and after a serious terrorist attack, poor people endure retched conditions. US prisoners and Indian slum residents both share 59 square feet of living space.

Harsh Mander, a former civil servant who runs the Centre for Equity Studies, describes the situation as dire for poor India citizens. "There is a deep prejudice about the poor. Their slums are demolished. They have no access to water or health facilities. They are denied access to public amenities and facilities. The state feels it has no duty to them."

Just as the India government feels no obligation to their poor, so the American government ignores its domestic destitute. While many Americans witnessed Katrina's destruction on television and read about it on the internet, post-Katrina coverage declined rapidly once the storm passed. Many poor people still do not have permanent housing in the areas where Katrina hit the hardest. Yet, the treasury received over $700 billion in bailout money to save rich people from themselves.

The government has attached no strings to this bailout like promises to keep jobs inside the United States - jobs that will help poor people save money for buying food and a home for their families. Overseas, poor people in India are still invisible even as they toil in cramped, sweltering, filthy conditions.

Only when the rich are in peril does the media take notice. This is really unfortunate because the media are the eyes and ears of the disenfranchised, and no other group is further marginalized than the poor.

If only poor people would organize into some kind of party, say the Poor People's Party (PPP). Their numbers here and abroad would be daunting, considering they far outnumber their government overlords. Other severities of sects (race, sexuality, gender, religion) all pale in comparison to the exploitation of the poor by the rich and powerful. It's just a matter of time before the poor realize that.