Saturday, September 17, 2005


The images of abject poverty that we all witnessed in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina shocked the nation. Most Americans seemed unaware of just how poor people in the Crescent City really were. I use 'were' in the past tense, and of course those people are still poor, they're just no longer in New Orleans. They've moved on to other states and brought their poverty with them.

But perhaps America shouldn't have been surprised. The Census Bureau recently announced that the number of people living in poverty in the U.S. rose by 1.1 million people last year, the fourth consecutive year that the nation's poverty rate has risen. Overall, 12.7 percent of the population, or 37 million people, now lives in poverty.

The South is the nation's poorest region, and it's been reported that 125,000 New Orleans residents subsisted on less than $8,000 per year. Just for a point of reference, the national poverty level for a family of four with two children is considered $19,157 or less. For a family of two with no children, it's $12,649, and for a people 65 and over living alone, it's $ 9,060. People in New Orleans are the poorest of the poor.

To get an idea of just how poor those people truly are, consider this; According to the same report, median household income in the U.S. stood at $44,389, unchanged from 2003. Among racial and ethnic groups blacks had the lowest median income and Asians the highest. Median income refers to the point at which half of households earn more and half earn less.

So to be considered as living in poverty, a family of four must make less than half the national median income. And people in New Orleans were making less than half as much as the poverty level. Now that's truly poor, and truly shocking.

The question is, why? Mostly it's education, or a lack of it. Many people are quick to point fingers and blame President Bush, or the government. Though I'm not generally a Bush supporter, responsibility for this inequity can not be laid squarely at his feet - or the government's for that matter. While it's absolutely true that poverty has been a continually worsening problem under Bush's reign and he's not sought a national dialogue on the matter, or convened the nation's best and brightest minds to tackle the issue, I'm not sure what exactly what the government can do.

Poverty is a class problem, and usually a generational problem as well. But poverty isn't the only generational problem here. Being uneducated and ignorant is another. The government can't force people in the underclass to value education. That's the job of parents. But sadly, too many parents are totally disconnected from their children's education. They don't attend parent-teacher conferences, and they don't assist their children with homework or test preparation. Heck, many don't even encourage their children to do better, or to be the best they can be. Ask any teacher in any big city school system.

For example, the graduation rates in the Los Angeles Unified School District's are alarming. Just 39% of Latinos and 47% of African Americans graduated in 2002. That's pathetic and has consequences for the entire city, not just poor blacks and Latinos.

Any reasonable person would agree that all public schools should be adequately funded and receive all of the basic necessities such as books, paper, chalk etc. Classrooms should not be in disrepair, but should be well-maintained, well-lit, and properly cooled or heated, according to the time of year and environment. But beyond that, more money won't get parents to care or get them involved. And if parents don't care, who can reasonably expect their kids to? Most kids simply don't like school. It's always been that way. But kids need to given a sense of consequences and understand the implications of not graduating. To not seek a higher education, or vocational training, after high school is an act of self-destruction that will only continue the cycle of poverty as well as the resentment of those who have. Their parents, grandparents and neighbors are often the finest examples, yet it doesn't seem to matter.

This is a class problem and, according to the Census Bureau, it's also a race problem. But this isn't something that white people are doing to black people. This is something that black people are doing to themselves.

Copyright © 2005 The Independent Report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

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