Poverty. It is the centerpiece of John Edwards' presidential campaign, the cover story for Sunday's New York Times Magazine and on the front pages of newspapers nationwide after Monday's announcement by U2 lead singer Bono and two former Senate Majority Leaders of the $30 billion ONE Campaign to make poverty a central issue in a presidential campaign for the first time since Robert Kennedy's assassination in 1968. With 49 million Americans now living at or just above the poverty line -- more than the population of California and New York combined - this debate is long overdue.
As author John Berger noted, today's poverty "is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities". It was a priority to Robert Kennedy, who spoke of the slow but deadly violence of poverty that break's "a man's spirit by denying him the chance to stand . . . as a man among men." Twelve years later, however Ronald Reagan swept into office campaigning against imagined Cadillac driving welfare queens and won reelection on the sunny optimism of "morning in America." Reagan shifted priorities to the individual and cutting taxes, since government was "the enemy" and poverty was merely "a career for lots of well paid people."
For the next generation, poverty largely disappeared from our political discourse and even popular culture as 1970s junk dealer Fred Sanford was replaced by the likes of Bill Cosby's Dr. Cliff Huxtable. The slow violence of poverty, however, has quietly continued as poverty has increased 17 percent under President Bush. The poor have simply become part of our disposable society, a point illustrated by the recent discovery of Los Angeles area hospitals dumping poor patients on Skid Row (often while still in their hospital gowns).
To make poverty a priority, Senator Edwards and Bono must overcome the fact that for many Americans poverty is invisible and simply an abstraction. One common abstract is that poverty is somewhere overseas or, if it exists at home, it is about "them" "over there" who for some reason, which may be of their own doing, fail to grasp the golden ring of American opportunity. It is different when poverty has a face or a name.
I grew up amidst poverty in a working class neighborhood that by the mid-1970s was struggling to recover from "white flight." The 100-year old Catholic church that anchored the neighborhood was badly in need of repair but had few parishioners left to support it. There was a brief period of hope when, during the Carter administration, community groups with government assistance began renovating dilapidated and abandoned houses. This all ended when Reagan took office and housing assistance was cut by nearly two-thirds. Abandoned by the government, the neighborhood's downward spiral resumed so that by the mid-1980s every house that I once passed along my five block walk to grammar school was either burned down or abandoned. By 1990, one in six houses in the neighborhood was vacant and prostitutes roamed the streets.
Today, the neighborhood is alive again. Once again government and community groups teamed together to start rebuilding the neighborhood, cutting the number of vacant units in half. In addition, last year the Catholic church completed a half-million dollar renovation project and today its pews are full with a new generation of working immigrant families. While more than forty percent of the residents live below the poverty level, there at least is hope.
Ultimately, that is what this debate is truly about - hope. Do we sit comfortably and ignore the reality that one in six Americans are now at or near poverty levels and, by neglect, allow a shroud of despair to remain over them; or do we follow Senator Edwards' lead to build an America where "the bright light of opportunity shines on every person." While we have always paid lip service to the notion that America was a "shining city upon a hill," after Katrina can we in good conscience continue to ignore the presence of the "other America" or ignore the searing images that gave poverty a face and a name?
After Katrina, President Bush declared that the nation had a duty "to confront this poverty with bold action." While Bush delivered nothing, the duty remains and Senator Edwards and Bono deserve credit for bringing this issue back in the spotlight. It is time that the world's most prosperous nation remove the stain of Katrina and decades of neglect with bold action to build a true "morning in America" where the rays of hope shine on all Americans.
This piece was originally published in the Santa Monica Daily Press