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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.

"The lives of poor people are very hidden from policymakers," says Cindy Mann, director of Georgetown University's Center for Children and Families. "The idea that some people don't have $10 for a co-pay for a doctor is unbelievable to them.

"Will Congress go forward with these cuts?" she asks. Or will members "understand what Katrina showed them -- a powerful glimpse of people's extensive needs?"

In fact, the entrenched, run-of-the-mill poor are largely invisible to most of us. Riveting TV footage showed us, in heartbreaking detail, many of the horrors endured by Katrina's survivors.

But I knew nothing about the man who approached my car -- whether his life story would have touched or disgusted me, whether he's an unrepentant alcoholic or someone more "worthy."

Like most people, rich or poor, his life's details were hidden from me.

Most people I know work hard for every dollar. They hate the notion of people who won't work being rewarded for their indolence. Some people, they suspect, deserve their poverty.

But what child chooses hunger? What youngster deserves caregivers who lack the drive or wherewithal to feed, house and nurture them?

How can we tell who's who?

Last week, Washington legal secretary Debbie Holland and her New Orleans-born husband, Maximillon, took five of their now-homeless family members into their three-bedroom Fort Washington home. The outpouring from co-workers, friends and complete strangers who've donated air mattresses, canned goods, toiletries, clothing and cash to help Holland's guests, who range in age from 9 to 48, keeps Holland on the brink of tears.

She, too, is struck by how generously Americans are giving -- more than $1 billion to date -- to their fellow citizens, some of whom just weeks ago might have been regarded as "undeserving."

"People think 'regular' poor people don't do enough to get ahead -- so they give here, they give there," Holland, 46, says. "There has to be a major catastrophe before we do what really needs to be done."

Holland, who has opened her home to those in need before, says she gives because of her "There but for the grace of God" attitude.

"I had parents who maybe weren't educated to the degree that I am now, but they stepped up; they gave me tools for success," she explains. "Not everybody's parents do that. It's a vicious circle -- parents are in poverty, so their kids . . . don't know anything different."

Holland hopes that playing host to relatives who were struggling even before Katrina hit will give her daughter, Nicole, 13, more appreciation of other people's difficulties, and of what can happen "in a blink of an eye."

It's a reminder many of us could use.

"There are two Americas -- and one is very hidden except in disasters like . . . Katrina," Mann says. "But if we looked around more, we could see, and learn from, [poor] people. They are cleaning our buildings and our homes, working at our groceries and laundries. They live in hidden neighborhoods.

"But they cross our paths every day. And we rely so much on them and their labor."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company