Politicians, Poor People and Historians

Published March 8, 2012

Politicians say dumb things, often when cameras and reporters are present. Then they are forced to admit what they said was dumb or try to defend it. When they choose the latter course they always make things worse. Then they commit their third and dumbest mistake…they clam up, praying their stupid statements will just fade away. They won’t.

Jacksonville’s Representative George Cleveland is the latest in the long line of politicians saying dumb things. He claims there is no “extreme poverty in North Carolina.” Thousands living in their cars, under bridges, in homeless shelters or without electricity and food will be happy to learn this.

He’s obviously drunk the conservative Kool-Aid, taking issue with federal standards that define poverty as a family of four earning less than 27,000 dollars a year. Conservatives prefer the definition articulated by The Heritage Foundation: You can’t be poor if you have air conditioning and cable television.

Let’s not get hung up on dollar amounts. Can we just agree there is poverty, extreme poverty, in this wealthy land and in North Carolina? And can we also acknowledge that government aid like Medicaid, food stamps, subsidized housing and free school lunches improves, but does not alleviate, the situation?

Conservatives often don’t want to acknowledge the extent of poverty because the next step down that slippery slope requires them to do something or offer solutions. Their standard response is to get government out of the way so private sector organizations and donors can step in and fix the situation. Problem is, nobody is stopping the private sector now and they aren’t responding. What gives us reason to suspect they will if government gets out of the way? Liberals use different approaches to turn their heads from poverty. They readily admit the growing problem; they just prefer government programs and dollars to fix it, not wanting to be personally involved. Neither approach is eradicating poverty. The Great Recession has forced even more, including some previously considered middle class, into poverty.

Poverty is as much a spiritual problem as a crisis of resources. One of the great tenets of this country has been that the rising tide would raise all fortunes. When did we lose the belief our futures are intertwined? No matter how wealthy or powerful no one is an island, as true today as it was in the 16th century when John Donne wrote those words. None of us is self-made, though many want to believe it so. Granted, wealthy and powerful people worked hard and took risks, but they achieved their status because of systems, governments and contributions from others. History is full of lessons when too many are repressed too long.

The poverty issue (or any major problem) will continue unsolved so long as we remain polarized, talk more than listen and treat each other with disrespect. We didn’t become the most advanced nation in history by acting as we do now.

I am becoming more mindful about what future generations will say about our stewardship. Let us begin by discussing what is our obligation to those less fortunate? Wouldn’t we rather have it said we valiantly tried and sometimes failed to make things better than report we were so busy arguing or pursuing our own pleasures to even try?