Every Day, We Ignore the Everyday Poor

By Donna Britt
Friday, September 16, 2005

God help the run-of-the-mill poor.

I'm not talking about the suddenly chic, in-vogue poor, such as destitute tsunami survivors or the displaced Gulf Coast residents whom Hurricane Katrina blew into every U.S. region -- though goodness knows, they need every possible blessing.

I mean the poor represented by a man I saw Monday while driving with a friend on a busy Northwest Washington street. Filthy, his eyes rimmed fire-engine red, the man approached my car, stopped before my bumper and fell to his knees.

Although smack in the middle of an active lane of traffic, he bowed his head, genuflecting on the concrete as if in worship.

I screamed. My friend, a longtime inner-city dweller who's seen hundreds of handout-seekers, shook his head and said, "So that's what run-of-the-mill poor people have to do to get our attention."

The run-of-the-mill poor . We see them -- and refuse to see them -- all the time.

Staring at us from "please give" posters. Milling on trash-strewn corners. Waiting on city lots, hoping to be picked up for pay-by-the-day labor.

The number of Americans living in poverty has grown by more than 4 million since the year 2000; some 36 million of us live below the poverty line, according to the Census Bureau.

Our fellow citizens living in severe poverty -- with incomes below half the poverty line -- increased by 1.2 million in 2003, to 15.3 million.

Some poor folks are easier to empathize with, as a social-worker friend of mine observed Saturday night while attending the Silver Spring concert benefiting hurricane survivors. She was in the middle of giving an enthusiastic standing ovation for hurricane survivors who'd been brought onstage when it hit her:

"I have clients who've been on waiting lists for housing for a year -- and they have pretty compelling stories," she told me later. "Where's the outpouring for them?"

Another friend who works for a northeastern state's housing authority told me that people who've waited nine years for affordable housing are being bumped for homeless Katrina victims. Ironically, months before generous Americans began throwing open their wallets to help Katrina survivors, Congress was considering cuts to Medicaid and food-stamp programs that help to feed and provide health care to the everyday poor.

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