I grew up in a distinctly middle-class neighborhood. My friends and I swam at our neighborhood pools in the summer and watched our parents run carnivals at our elementary school. We participated in band and sports, and our parents bought us instruments and uniforms. We received cars on our sixteenth birthdays, even if they were upwards of seven years old, and we drove them proudly. Although we never considered it, we were all living the American Dream.
Since leaving home, attending college, and returning again, I've noticed the area around my high school decline slowly. It's a little worse every time I drive back to my parent's house. I look at the abandoned businesses and forgotten buildings. I notice trash on the street and broken storefront signs. Most shocking, however, was the news that my middle school was rated "Academically Unacceptable" -- the lowest rating the Texas Education Agency offers -- a year ago. My own experience is not unique. It mirrors that of the millions of Americans who watch their middle and working class communities decay every day. National Public Radio recently reported that nearly 16 percent of Americans now live in poverty, while a third of the country lives on a salary only double the poverty threshold.
Poverty in America is no longer bound by descriptors. It is rural, urban, white, black, and brown. As the recession continues, the Occupy movement has drawn some attention to poverty in the United States. However, it has remained largely on the periphery of major political discussions. To some extent, the social programs of Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty have lessened the visibility of poverty in the U.S. Nevertheless, poverty is a rapidly growing issue -- in particular for the shrinking middle class -- and those programs are no longer enough to solve the deeply-embedded problems in our society. As New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein once said, "We give kids with the greatest challenges the crummiest education, and then we call poverty destiny."
As a nation, we must begin to recognize poverty as an American problem -- not one defined by ethnicity, location, or class. We must call on our politicians to provide a framework for helping our citizens find resources and jobs. We cannot disregard social programs like welfare and Medicare, but we must also begin to create long-term solutions. At the heart of this solution must be a focus on education, so that we may help people help themselves. If there is educational equality in our schools, all children will have equality of opportunity.
In 2007, when President Obama reminded us that "The moral question about poverty in America -- How can a country like this allow it? -- has an easy answer: we can't." For the more complicated question of what to do, Obama had an answer as well: establish more programs like Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone that offer comprehensive education. Good schools can improve our communities as well as our children. Education, combined with social programs and fair wages, can help cure the epidemic of poverty that has swept our nation. In 2012, we cannot ignore poverty any longer. Poverty is not destiny, and we must demand a change for the future of children and our nation.
This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.
HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the persistence of poverty in America August 29th and September 5th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.
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