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LP - Just a devastating piece on poverty in America
Clarksdale, Mississippi, might seem an unlikely starting point for a meditation on twenty-first-century American inequality. After all, the music the town’s fame rests on is born of the sorrow and racial exploitations of another century. Clarksdale proudly markets itself as the home of the blues: the world’s best blues musicians still come to jam in the little Delta town where W.C. Handy once lived, where Bessie Smith died and where Robert Johnson supposedly made his infamous pact with the devil at a crossroads on the edge of town.
In the poorer section of Clarksdale, in a subsidized housing unit about the size of a small boat’s cabin, lives 88-year-old Amos Harper, a jack-of-all-trades who grew up in a sharecropping family. Harper spent decades doing everything from farmwork to interstate tractor-trailer transport. These days, he gets up early to supplement his $765 monthly Social Security check, collecting cans from the gutters and trading them in for 49 cents per pound. When he isn’t doing that, he’s mowing lawns and running errands for several of the town’s richer residents, including Bill Luckett.
Luckett and his wife live in a huge house designed by architect E. Fay Jones, a Frank Lloyd Wright mentee. Every detail, from the high ceilings to the sunken rooms, has been carefully planned. The larger-than-life home complements the larger-than-life persona of Luckett, a burly 64-year-old attorney and real estate developer with a shock of gray hair who is “president of everything from a country club to a hunting club,” as he puts it. Luckett serves on a state legal aid board and various educational advisory boards, and he counts among his acquaintances some of the country’s top politicians and entertainers.
He also considers Harper a friend, although, as Luckett would be the first to acknowledge, the friendship is deeply unequal. Until age slowed him down, Harper would routinely show up at the Ground Zero blues club, a raucous place Luckett owns with actor Morgan Freeman, showing off dance moves that Luckett says are some of the best in town.
For Luckett, Clarksdale’s imbalances are indicative of broader fissures and inequities in Mississippi—and, he believes, across America. Angry at the way the political system is ignoring poverty, Luckett ran for governor last year on an anti-poverty and invest-in-education platform. He came in a strong second in the Democratic primary, though in a state as heavily Republican as Mississippi, that didn’t necessarily count for much. “I’d never intended to get into politics,” he explains over a glass of red wine in one of his living rooms. But, he says, lack of investment in public education, an increasingly regressive tax system and other challenges pushed him into the fray. “America has never had as greedy a top 1 percent as we have now. The inequality has reached dangerous proportions.”
Sadly, this too is reflective of the nation. At a moment when the wealthy flourish atop a sea of state subsidies (with the tacit compliance of many of the working poor), while the poor are barely protected by a frayed social safety net and often disengaged from the decision-making processes that structure their lives, confronting the root causes of poverty is particularly daunting and increasingly urgent.
...Once-booming economies like Nevada’s have shrunk to levels of unemployment and homelessness not seen since the height of the Great Depression. Once-proud industries have been brought low. Once-booming real estate ventures—in Florida, Arizona, Nevada, California—are ghost towns. “Poverty is creeping into the diminishing middle class,” notes Iray Nabatoff, a beret-wearing community advocate who runs a social services organization in the town of Arabi, in Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish, and who is vice-chairman of a group called Unified Non-Profits of Greater New Orleans. “It’s everywhere. I don’t think we’ve ever seen poverty to the level we’re now seeing.”
As in Harrington’s day, a disproportionate share of the nation’s poor are African-American and Latino. More than a quarter of blacks and Latinos live below the government-defined poverty line (about $11,000 per year for an individual, $23,000 for a family of four), compared with 12 percent of Asian-Americans and slightly less than 10 percent of whites. Among African-Americans and Latinos, the slide into poverty has been marked by a concomitant collapse in assets. This past July the Pew Research Center released an analysis of government data that concluded that the median wealth of white households was a staggering eighteen times that of Hispanic households and twenty times that of African-Americans. Fueled by disproportionate home foreclosures and underwater mortgages among these minorities, this trend indicates a reversal of decades of progress toward reducing such inequalities. “From 2005 to 2009, inflation-adjusted median wealth fell by 66% among Hispanic households and 53% among black households,” says the report, “compared with just 16% among white households.”
...There are myriad signs that poverty and equity are starting to figure more prominently in national politics, too. In recent years, legislators’ willingness to confront the crisis and craft innovative solutions to it was hampered by venomous anti-tax, anti-government rhetoric from the right, and by conservative oratory that blames the poor, often in barely camouflaged racial terms, for their misery. Even as national unemployment and poverty figures reached alarming highs during the recession, Democrats shied away from tackling the issue. President Obama repeatedly emphasized his commitment to protecting the struggling middle class, but he never pushed Congress to come up with a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy.
The Progressive Caucus attempted to buck this trend last year when it introduced a People’s Budget, which emphasized infrastructure investments over tax cuts for the wealthy. And when the Occupy movement descended on Wall Street in the fall, the terms of the debate shifted radically. Suddenly Democrats were keen to jump on the bandwagon. In fact, President Obama launched his re-election campaign with a series of speeches decrying the country’s growing inequalities and increasingly regressive tax codes. In Osawatomie, Kansas, the president declared that the growing chasm between rich and poor was “the defining issue of our time. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class,” he said, “and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class. Because what’s at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement.” Since that speech, Obama has repeatedly struck a more radical economic note than he did in the first three years of his presidency.