In Bailout Talk, What About Saving The Have-Nots?
On Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast Washington, homeless people rummage through garbage cans in search of food. Unemployed men and women congregate near construction sites, only to leave discouraged when told that no day laborers are needed. Others opt to sell drugs; some, their bodies -- risking death to survive.
"The war is not abroad -- it's here against the poor," George Robinson, a 51-year-old veteran, told me yesterday after leaving a mental-health counseling session at St. Elizabeths Hospital. He still sounded depressed. "Prices so high on everything and wages so low it doesn't even pay to work."
As the nation's leaders grapple with how to spend $700 billion to stimulate the economy, the concerns of truly hopeless and despairing people such as Robinson have been given short shrift. Even as Congress was bailing out the financial system, a modest proposal to fund jobs programs, expand unemployment benefits and increase spending on food stamps was put on hold.
A clash for a lion's share of the bailout booty has been symbolically cast as Main Street vs. Wall Street -- in essence, the have-much against the have-more.
Thelma Parker, like Robinson, is one of the have-nots.
"I worked hard in a food-catering service, but I got sick and didn't have any health insurance," Parker, 58, told me. She gave a toothless smile. "If I could find a job, the first thing I'd get would be some teeth."
During much of the presidential campaign, the economic struggle of the working poor and the poverty-stricken has been noted only vaguely.
"My attitude is that if the economy's good for folks from the bottom up, it's gonna be good for everybody," Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), the Democratic nominee, said recently. "I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody."
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the Republican nominee, took that statement to mean that Obama was waging "class warfare."
Yet, along Martin Luther King Jr. avenues throughout the nation -- black America's Main Street, if you will -- you'll find the real class warfare, one that has been relegated to the back alleys of the nation's conscience. Indeed, there are more than 730 thoroughfares named for the slain civil rights leader -- many of which cut through urban areas in an ironic testament to broken promises and dreams deferred.
The unemployment rate for African Americans is 8.3 percent, compared with 4.1 percent for whites. The rate for black males 16 and older is 9.1 percent, compared with 4.2 for white males.
Along the District's avenue, some cash-intensive operations were doing good -- such as the liquor store, always a popular means of coping with hard times. Asked whether the economic crisis had cut into her booze profits, a cashier at Marts Liquor told me, "No effect."