More Neglect for America’s Poor

The Wall Street meltdown of 2008 pushed millions of middle-class Americans down the social ladder and left the Obama administration scrambling to limit the damage. But that has meant even less attention to the growing ranks of the nation’s poor, say Bill Moyers and Michael Winship.

By Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

It’s just astonishing to us how long this campaign has gone on with no discussion of what’s happening to poor people. Official Washington continues to see poverty with tunnel vision “out of sight, out of mind.”

And we’re not speaking just of Paul Ryan and his Draconian budget plan or Mitt Romney and their fellow Republicans. Tipping their hats to America’s impoverished while themselves seeking handouts from billionaires and corporations is a bad habit that includes President Obama, who of all people should know better.

A classic photo of a poor mother and children in Elm Grove, California, during the Great Depression. (Photo credit: Library of Congress)

Remember: for three years in the 1980’s he was a community organizer in Roseland, one of the worst, most poverty-stricken and despair-driven neighborhoods in Chicago. He called it “the best education I ever had” and when Obama left to go to Harvard Law School, author Paul Tough writes in The New York Times, he did so, “to gain the knowledge and resources that would allow him to eventually return and tackle the neighborhood’s problems anew.” There’s a moving line in Dreams from My Father where he writes: “I would learn power’s currency in all its intricacy and detail” and “bring it back like Promethean fire.”

Oddly, though, for all his rhetorical skills Obama hasn’t made a single speech devoted to poverty since he moved into the White House.

Five years ago, he was one of the few politicians who would talk about it. Here he is in July 2007, speaking in Anacostia, one of the poorest parts of Washington, DC:

“The moral question about poverty in America — How can a country like this allow it? — has an easy answer: we can’t. The political question that follows — What do we do about it? — has always been more difficult. But now that we’re finally seeing the beginnings of an answer, this country has an obligation to keep trying.”

Barack Obama the candidate said he wanted to spend billions on a nationwide program similar to Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children Zone in New York City, widely praised for its focus on comprehensive child development. In the last three years, only $40 million have been spent with another $60 million scheduled for local community grants.

Obama’s White House team insisted their intentions were good, but the depth of the economic meltdown passed along by their predecessors has kept them from doing more. And yes, billions have been spent on direct aid to families in the form of welfare, food stamps, housing vouchers and other payments.

What’s needed, as Paul Tough at the Times and others say, is a less scattershot, more comprehensive program that gets to the root of the problem, focusing on education and mentoring. Not easy to do when a disaffected middle class that votes says, “hey, what about us?” and the wealthy one percent who lay out the fat campaign contributions simply say, “so what?”

Just a few days ago, The Chronicle of Philanthropy issued a report on charitable giving. Among its findings: “Rich people who live in neighborhoods with many other wealthy people give a smaller share of their incomes to charity than rich people who live in more economically diverse communities.”

Responding to that study, the social psychologist Paul Piff told National Public Radio, “The more wealth you have, the more focused on your own self and your own needs you become, and the less attuned to the needs of other people you also become.”

Those few who dedicate themselves to keeping the poor ever in sight realize how grave the situation really is. The Associated Press reports that, “The number of Americans with incomes at or below 125 percent of the poverty level is expected to reach an all-time high of 66 million this year.”

A family of four earning 125 percent of the federal poverty level makes about $28,800 a year, according to government figures.

That number’s important because 125 percent is the income limit to qualify for legal aid, but although that family may qualify for help, budgets for legal services have been slashed, too, and pro bono work at the big law firms has fallen victim to downsizing.

So it’s not surprising, the AP goes on to say, that there’s a crisis in America’s civil courts because people slammed by the financial meltdown — overwhelmed by foreclosure, debt collection and bankruptcy cases — can’t afford legal representation and have to represent themselves, creating gridlock in our justice system and one more hammer blow for the poor.

We know, we know: It is written that, “The poor will always be with us.”  But when it comes to our “out of sight, out of mind” population of the poor, you have to think we can help reduce their number, ease the suffering, and speak out, with whatever means at hand, on their behalf and against those who would prefer they remain invisible.

Speak out:  that means you and me, and yes, Mr. President, you, too. You once told the big bankers on Wall Street that you were all that stood between them and the pitchforks of an angry public. How about telling the poor you will make sure our government stands between them and the cliff?

Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program, Moyers & Company, airing on public television. Check local airtimes or comment at For a video version of this story, click here.


5 comments for “More Neglect for America’s Poor

  1. August 26, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    That’s because for many of us it’s a bitter reality, as opposed to politicians where it’s nothing more than a convenient issue that can be brought up when needed and ignored when no longer useful.

  2. August 26, 2012 at 9:55 pm

    Americans make a little over 4% of world population – but consumes over 40% of world’s resources. The US has world’s highest numbers of billionaires (450) and millionaires (320,000) – but 80% of them belongs to country’s 1% rich minority. The new census data released shows that over 49 million Americans (16%) live below poverty line. America has the worst wealth inequality among the industrialized world.

    In 2007 – the 1% owned 50.9% of country’s stocks, bonds and mutual funds as compared to 0.5% of the 50% Americans (149 millions). During the same year, the 1% owned 33.8% of country’s total wealth while the lower 50% American population owned only 2.5% of country’s total wealth.

  3. jerry gates
    August 27, 2012 at 5:32 am

    I Colombia, United States, Israel France Germany and many other NATO aligned nations there is a pomposity and selfishness so vile and rank as to say it supports protections for Jews in Israel which is a curious mindset made by advocates for erets Israel, What many pundits ignore is the actual size, shape and magnitude of this new behemoths countenance and what exactly the results based outcomes of it’s denizens effects on the planet.

    Jews in Israel languish in poverty due to the wealthy class of Israel’s acceptance of settlements as their national future, harassment of Hamas and Abu Mazen as their directive and wars of aggression as the means to their ends. Peoples lives are shattered daily so that militarists from many nations with their weapons of mass destruction can maraud over the poor without anyone taking vehement exception to this base mentality and awful selfishness. This tome of indifference towards others accepted in zionist thinking by Ayn Rand types and their bastions of exceptionalism in both political parties is the direct cause which affects great poverty as only the “interests” of colonialism are parlayed as important in news cycles, People like Trudy Rubin , writing for the Philly Inquirer tell NPR’s acolytes to gice obama a “pass” for his awful bigoted foreign policies and like sheep being led to water and fresh grass they go with Rubins advice as if lemmings headed for cliffs which after cicumnavigating they “earn” the place of pundits rich and famed all for having been disgracful useful idiots for zionist agression over others” These others are Ethiopian, Congolese, Iraqi Somalian Malian and Syrian childrens very lives, which are washed over hasbaras dams daily without mention as to what root cause created their impoverishment if it is Jewish, Christian or Mormon. Even French Socialists supposedly whom seek equality in commons of their nation have leaders whose trusts forward for France require murder, massacre deceitful tall tales and debauchery to facilitate. Nato has lost it’s compass, lost it’s pride and lost it’s way in zionism, has fallen and cant arise a new creature born again unto compassion for all creation, their blinders afixed primarily by selfish Jews wading in bloods of others waist high and noboy cares to mention it in the circles where discussing this menace to humanity might make a difference3, It is the poor who speak for the poor, when the bogus political class speak up, they speak in riddles, brain farts and malopropisms, the father if lies is proud if his creatures and rewards them well, the father of truth is jailed, beaten mocked and scourged by savage beasts in sheeps clothing. Many understand what is happening today many others dont, the outcome for billions of children hangs in the balances of courts which dont convene when it is their friends who slaughter innocents for filthy lucres from capitalist dens of iniquity.

    • August 27, 2012 at 9:09 am

      Last year, tens of thousands of protesters have taken to streets in response to Netanyahu’s economic policies which have helped to increase disparity among Jewish citizens.

      Various studies show it, including the latest ones saying 1.77 million (out of total Jewish population of 4.7 million) Israelis are poor. About 850,000 children live in poverty. As a result, 75% of those affected miss meals, a 21% increase from 2009. Moreover, 83% of poor children lack proper dental care, most getting none. Some beg for money. Others steal to eat.

      These figures put Zionist entity worse than the war-torn third world African nation of Somalia – where according to a report by the UN published last month, one in three children in South Somalia suffers from malnutrition. While Somalian are living under western war and sanctions – Israeli Jews receive 46% of total annual USAID plus $3 billion annual military aid.

      Israel is a predominantly low-wage economy, with 75 percent of workers earning $1,700 or less a month. Wages have fallen from 68 percent of national income in 2000 to 63 percent in 2010. This is equivalent to the loss of NIS 976 a month.

      Sixteen of the world’s billionaires are Israelis who control Israel’s economy and have major stocks in the Wall Street. The top executives in the 25 largest corporations were paid more than 90 times the average wage in 2010.

  4. Frances in California
    August 31, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    This was good Moyers writing about America’s poor; yeah! We have them! You made it about Israel . . . again!

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