Friday, October 31, 2008
Thursday, October 30, 2008
Sunday, October 26, 2008
Read the rest -- it's well worth your time.
I was 6 years old and sitting next to my grandmother at the table where as many as 14 of our extended family members ate our evening meals. I quickly finished my small plate of rice and beans, and said, "But, grandma, I’m still hungry." Everyone went silent. My grandma, Simmalikee, smiled at me, took her plate and scraped off the several spoonfuls she had not yet eaten onto mine. No, I thought. Not your food, grandma. Some other food. I sobbed as she coaxed me to eat each bite. No matter how empty my belly felt, I never again said I was still hungry after a meal.
That was a long time ago, and my grandma has been dead more than 50 years, but I have never forgotten that terrible moment nor what it means to be poor. If there was meat or fish on the table then, it was possum, deer, catfish and the occasional wild hog. In those days, before food stamps, we received surplus government hand-outs every month: rice, beans, cornmeal, lard, cheese and powdered milk. It was never enough, and toward the end of each month, everybody’s portions got smaller.
Since the enactment of what might be called the Third New Deal – LBJ’s Great Society programs: the Food Stamp Act of 1964, Medicare, Head Start, housing assistance, education grants and various other programs – the ravages of widespread poverty in America have been greatly reduced. Ameliorated, but not removed from what the propagandists so regularly call the No. 1 country on the planet. And lately, it’s been getting worse. Not just the ragged poverty many Americans associate with the Great Depression, inner cities or Indian reservations, but also middle-class slippage.
In the past few weeks, both from Republicans and Democrats, we’ve heard a great deal about the travails of Wall Street and the mythical Main Street in the acute economic crisis that has everyone who hasn’t already been downsized or foreclosed sitting on pins and needles. But far less – next to nothing, in fact – has been said about what’s going on elsewhere in America, in side streets and alleys where chronic structural economic problems dating back three decades continue to take a toll.
Today, about 20 percent of America’s children – 13.5 percent of all Americans – live in what is a very flawed federal measure of poverty whose parameters haven’t been changed in more than four decades.
Saturday, October 11, 2008
Friday, October 10, 2008
Tuesday, October 07, 2008
Friday, October 03, 2008
Joanne Goldblum remembers Jackie, a mentally retarded mother with two children, as the first person she’d ever seen dry and reuse a disposable diaper. Instead of toilet paper, Jackie kept a communal towel by the toilet. Goldblum still cringes when she tells the story. As a social worker for the Yale Child Study Center, Goldblum worked with families who were chronically homeless, families like Jackie’s. “They were living in a way you couldn’t believe was happening in America,” Goldblum says.
Goldblum set out to teach Jackie about the importance of cleanliness in keeping a family healthy. But Jackie insisted that she could not afford toilet paper. “Honestly, I thought she didn’t understand,” Goldblum says. So the social worker checked to see if Jackie could use Food Stamps to get toilet paper, only to find that the Food Stamps program pays for nothing except food. Then she turned to the federal Women, Infants and Children program, which provides supplemental nutrition to babies and pregnant women, and received the same answer: food only. Food pantries received donations of toiletries on occasion but never enough to meet the needs of all their clients.
Jackie, it turns out, understood perfectly. No government program would help her buy the products she needed to keep her family clean. Living in New Haven, Conn., where the rent for a two-bedroom apartment approaches a minimum-wage worker’s monthly gross income, she could never spare the cash for diapers, toilet paper or soap. Jackie was not the only mother in Goldblum’s caseload with that problem. One apartment Goldblum visited was dotted with piles of garbage. There was no trash can because there was no money to buy it. Children wore foul-smelling clothes because there was no detergent to wash them with. And in family after family, disposable diapers were being reused. Mothers would dump out the solids and put the diapers back on the babies.
Goldblum spent the next two years learning that the cost of cleanliness was quicksand, pulling already poor families down into intractable poverty. Parents who could not keep their homes or children clean would lose their children to the foster system. Day care centers require families to provide disposable diapers, and without day care, parents cannot work. Goldblum learned about the problem and railed about it. A lot of that railing happened at dinnertime. One night her husband, David, looked across the table and said, “Your diaper thing: We could just do it.”
Wednesday, October 01, 2008
On a chair outside Johnson’s Barbecue on Tinton Avenue in the Bronx, Keith McLean had thoroughly considered the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street.
“That’s for C.E.O.’s,” said Mr. McLean. “And I am a P-O-O-R.”
Mr. McLean, who helps out in the barbecue stand, lives in one of the poorest Congressional districts in the country, a half-hour subway ride to Wall Street. On Monday, José E. Serrano, the Democrat who represents the district, voted against the bailout package. He was the only member of Congress from the city to do so.
In a walk through parts of the district, it was easy to find people who, while indifferent to the outcome of the vote, were intensely interested in the machinations leading to the drama of closed banks and astronomical bailouts. For many, the financial package was another in a series of manufactured crises.
James Jacobs, who cuts hair at Six Corners Barbershop, said he felt that an atmosphere of paranoia had been deliberately cultivated, leading to the war in Iraq and now to the financial alarm.
“They scare people with bomb threats,” Mr. Jacobs said.
Edwin Mitchell, who works in a car dealership, was sitting alongside him. “We got stuck up,” he said.
“It’s corporate America doing what corporate America does,” Mr. Jacobs said.
“Organized crime,” Mr. McLean said.
“It’s the new organized crime,” Mr. Jacobs said.
“Ain’t nothing new about it,” Mr. McLean said.
“We’re not going to see none of that,” Mr. Jacobs said. “Not one red cent. Whichever way it goes. We ain’t going to see it, we ain’t going to feel it. If we do it feel it, its going to be negatively, and a few of us might lose a few jobs.”
Mr. McLean had tracked the news carefully. “Washington Mutual, he was on the job three weeks, he got $11 million,” he said.
Actually, it was more. Three weeks before Washington Mutual failed, it hired Alan H. Fishman as its chief executive officer, and paid him a signing bonus of $7.5 million. He is also eligible for $11.6 million in cash severance.
For the men in front of Johnson’s, there was plain symmetry between the Iraq war and the financial crisis: Young people shipped out to a trillion-dollar bloodbath in the Middle East, in pursuit of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction; and banks collapsing on top of mortgages handed out to people without enough money for a bag of groceries. And how, Mr. Mitchell wondered, could it be that Osama bin Laden had not been captured? “You can look down from outer space and see a dime on a city street, and you can’t find him?” he said.
From personal experience, he said, he knew that credit cards were another species of mirage.
“How does a person get credit that never had a regular job, no bank account, no sign of being a respectable person, and he winds up with three or four credit cards?” Mr. Mitchell asked. “I was out of work there for a couple of years, and I ended up with three credit cards. American Express. Visa. I forget the other one. And the banks give all these loans to people knowing they can’t pay, but they get a commission. Let them pay their commissions.”
If disgust, or horror, at the bailout was universal, there was not unanimity on what had to be done. The owner of the barbecue stand, Dwayne Johnson, 50, said he was outraged that many members of the Congressional black caucus had voted against the bailout.
“They voted no, they don’t have that right,” Mr. Johnson said. “The only way you can help the community is get it passed. If you’re the president and you can’t get 10 votes to pass it, then that’s bad. If you’re Obama, you can’t get 10 votes, that’s bad.”
Midaglia Rodriguez, 60, said that she worried that a new Depression was just over the horizon, and that she believed the bailout was necessary. “It should go through, to fix the situation,” she said.
Regardless of the outcome of votes in Congress, Mr. Mitchell said, he would still face the daily struggle to make a living and keep a roof over his head.
“I love this country, the best country on the planet. I love this city, best city in the world,” he said. “I don’t see a change that is going to affect me. I’m going to do what I always did. Survive. The best way I could.”