It is a chronic social ailment for the very poor to be invisible to the rest of America.
"We have to expose these conditions to the American people," said Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo, a lead architect of President Clinton's tour this week through the nation's poverty belt. "They don't know these conditions exist. . . . That's not where they live, they don't see it on their way to work, it's not their daily experience -- it is almost inconceivable."
Cuomo offered these thoughts in an April speech but is not the first to have them.
"The other America, the America of poverty, is hidden today in a way that it never was before. Its millions are socially invisible to the rest of us. . . . Poverty is often off the beaten track. It always has been."
So wrote the late Michael Harrington in his 1962 book, "The Other America," which helped spark the war on poverty in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
Now, 37 years later, the trumpet summons us again, or so at least Cuomo and Clinton hope. Presumably, the country feels rich again and is amenable to worrying about the poor. Perhaps this time, we'll ask why the poor go in and out of fashion as if they were a commodity or a new car design.
It's a president's job to put problems on the national agenda. By taking his tour through Hazard and Annville, Ky., Clarksdale, Miss., East St. Louis, Ill., the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and yesterday in South Phoenix and Watts, Clinton shifted the media's focus for at least a few days to the problems of the least among us.
In principle, there is nothing wrong with the president's core message: Business investment could do a world of good for the nation's poorest communities; government spending is no substitute for jobs in thriving enterprises; and tax laws and other incentives could be wielded, as the president is proposing to Congress, so capital could move into places such as Hazard and Clarksdale.
Perhaps Clinton is showing how well he understands this gilded era. Telling investors, as he did in East St. Louis, that "there are business opportunities out here" works better these days than, say, "We Shall Overcome."
"We could say to every corporate leader in America: Take a look at investing in rural and inner-city America," the president said in Hazard. "It's good for business, good for America's growth, and it's the right thing to do."
All very practical, one of those "win-win" propositions Clinton loves to talk about. It plays into a vogue in business schools (sparked by the work of Michael Porter at Harvard,among others) to look at the untapped economic profit potential of poor neighborhoods and cities. And surely it is useful to break down prejudices against investing in marginalized precincts.
Yet it is dispiriting that Clinton is making this investment of time and energy in the seventh year of his term. "Why not year one, two, three, four, five or six?" asked Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) in a telephone interview from his home state. "It's very late for a commitment to economic justice."
Clinton, in fact, is walking in Wellstone's shoes. Two years ago, the unapologetically liberal senator retraced the trek through impoverished America that Robert F. Kennedy took in the '60s.
Wellstone, who cares about the poor even at moments when their cause is not pronounced to be cool, thinks the president's New Markets Initiative is "timid." He says it doesn't do enough about the basic problems confronting poor Americans: the inadequacy of their schools, their lack of health coverage and the problems many of the poorest face as they are forced off public assistance by welfare reforms.
"In a time of peak economic performance, we're still told we can't provide health care for every American or a good education for every American," Wellstone says. "If not now, when?"
An excellent question for which Wellstone may now get a bit more of an audience. Clinton, with his shrewd sense of the politically possible, has decided it's an opportune time to talk about the poor. If Americans get serious about the Other America, they might go beyond Clinton's pitch to get a few more corporate dollars for Hazard or Clarksdale.
And they might go back to a question Michael Harrington asked that becomes more powerful as the decades pass: "How long shall we look the other way while our fellow human beings suffer? How long?"