Recently, my family and I moved from the Los Angeles area to Southern New Mexico. We moved from the relatively affluent nested suburban community of La Crescenta, Calif., to the peaceful, but economically depressed town of Las Cruces, N.M. While the poverty here is not as readily visible as in some places like downtown Detroit, or Watts, or Liberty City in Miami, it runs deep and is pervasive. The people here are friendly, and demonstrate all the virtues of residents of similar communities all around the United States. However, it is not towns like Las Cruces that are mentioned frequently by parties engaged in economic and social debates in popular media -- mainstream or alternative. Other communities are usually considered long before this one.
Part of the reason that towns like Las Cruces are not mentioned by popular media with any frequency is that, while the United States is considered a "melting pot" on paper, few people genuinely understand what that means. There is little sense of unity in the minds of our population. We are sadly divided as a people, and tend to see ourselves as part of divided and competing communities. If most were to asked to choose a photo of the archetypal "American" out of a large array of photos of people of different backgrounds and origins, it is still likely that most would choose an image of an Anglo male or female as representative of what is thought to be innately "American." While that perception is not likely absolute, I would be comfortable putting that to the test with anyone willing to sponsor a substantive poll.
Communities like Las Cruces, which is the second most populous city in the state of New Mexico, have extremely large populations of non-whites, in a state which has one of the highest immigrant populations in the nation. Las Cruces also has a growing number of other marginalized groups represented among its population, as well as a growing number of retirees that are moving here. The majority of people moving to Las Cruces are not moving here for the same reason that one might move from the Hamptons to Florida. The affluent are not flowing here for picturesque coastal views and year-round subtropical weather. People move here because it is a relatively safe area, with a relatively low cost of living.
The people of Las Cruces are, in many respects, loosely representative of a large block of people that are rarely considered or included in national level discussions about social or economic issues. They are not likely to be involved events organized by media attractive groups like the Tea Party, or Occupy Wall Street. Few people even know the city as anything other than a potential food and/or restroom stop along Interstate Highway 10. There are many towns throughout the United States just like Las Cruces, however. Whether they are urban, suburban, or rural, numerous communities tend to be lumped in with larger and better known examples of "average America," only to have their unique and pressing issues ignored. People living in those communities know that each community is different enough to warrant that each of them should be examined individually.
When we consider the issue of economic stagnation and poverty in a town like Las Cruces, it is a sad reality that few people in positions of power and authority in this country appear to recognize that poverty here is not the same as poverty in someplace like Los Angeles or Seattle or New York City or Appalachia or Des Moines, Iowa. The people in each region are different, and the problems they face are unique to their cultural, historical, and functional circumstances. So, when a politician, business person, activist, educator, or whomever, speaks about "The Poor," it is best to remember that they are not speaking about a group of people that are completely homogeneous. They may use that mass noun as a convenience of communication, but in doing so they are doing those they profess to speak about a great injustice.
So, the title of this post is itself somewhat of a misnomer. "The Poor" have many people who profess to speak for them. The actual living and breathing individuals, suffering various incarnations of poverty in their numerous communities around the country, in numerous circumstances around the country, actually have few people speaking specifically for them. Many of these people tend to see themselves as both misunderstood and/or forgotten, because they see their unique circumstances and stories being lost to the convenience of truncation of language, in the midst of a multi-tier propaganda machine that is our media.
The purpose of this post is to leverage the minuscule amount of influence that I might be able to muster, and ask that someone -- anyone -- in a position of political, social, economic, academic, or other relevant authority, undertake to correct this lack of effective representation that I have described. I can assure anyone reading this post that my own voice lacks even the impact of an unwelcome telemarketer making cold calls to busy people. But, there may accidentally be someone who reads this post that has the motivation, means, and eloquence to actually address this injustice.
If we can at least begin to address poverty as a multifaceted and complex issue, and recognize the unique circumstances of each person suffering under it, we can perhaps begin to have meaningful discussions about ways to potentially assist those suffering through it. If we pretend that one size fits all when talking about poverty, we are likely to engage in responses that do not fit. That not only fails to help those most in need, it wastes the time and resources of people who truly wish to help.
Peace and compassion to all.
Follow Jeffrey P. Colin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@JeffreyPColin