povertylange.jpg

(This shot is from the iconic Dorothea Lange, whose photographs stand the test of time in terms of documenting so much of American life and poverty during the Depression.  I found this shot in a photo essay on poverty that is well worth a look.)

Back in early January of this year, I sat down to my keyboard and poured out a heartfelt post in the aftermath of the Sago mining disaster that occurred about 45 minutes down the road from where I live here in West Virginia.  What I wrote then comes back to me this morning, and I wanted to re-emphasize a few points that still go unaddressed today:

We've gutted funding for mental health. We pay social workers who intercede on the children's behalf less than they could make at McDonalds, but we expect them to do a job so difficult and so important to our communities. We spend huge sums of money on new prisons every year: imagine if we just dedicated a small portion of that amount to services on the front end of the problem — when these kids were small or even when they were still in the womb (you would not believe the amount of damage to a child that can be done by a mother using crack while pregnant) — how much better return would that be for our nation over the long run? These are the things that kept me up at night as a prosecutor. The individual stories behind every single one of the defendants and families that I saw, and the question of how to fix the problems that I kept repeatedly seeing, and not just put a band-aid on the problem and hope it would go away on its own. The question of how economic hardship can push someone already on the brink of disaster to do something so stupid, and that can impact his family for generations. But the answers were elusive, and still are.

This is a problem that we need a national discussion about over an extended period. Not some nasty political infighting. Not throwing a bunch of sound bites at each other and looking smug, digging in our respective positions a lobbing bombs out from behind the ideological bunkers.

A real, honest discussion. Education is the way out — but that only works if people in incredibly poor areas have access to decent education. How do we accomplish that?

Mental health and other safety net programs have been gutted over the last few years. Are we trying to create more criminals to lock up — because that's been a big part of the result that I've seen in the real world trenches. But for a government running deficits as big as the federal government is, where is more funding coming from to increase these programs? And from states, who are having trouble meeting federal entitlements that keep pushing off costs onto the backs of governors whose budgets are already stretched thin? No easy answers here, that's for sure.

Fair wages for a fair day's work are essential. But how does that happen in an era when health insurance costs are through the roof — for both the worker and the business employing them — and energy costs are eating up the margins for a lot of other businesses who might have some slack? For that matter, exactly how does a CEO justify making 350 times or more than his lowest paid worker, all the while running a business into the ground with bad decisions?

The bottom line is this: there are some really tough choices facing this nation (and the discussion above is my no means a comprehensive list), and we need to approach them carefully because the results of our action or inaction have long-term ramifications for our children. Democrats used to own these issues because they listened to the voices of those people who needed help, who needed a hand up, and who were willing to do the work on their end to get the job done. And they spoke up for them, gave them a voice in the halls of power.

There, in a nutshell, is where I still am:  trying to find a way to bring the voices of these folks to the fore because they have no real public voice in today's politics.  At least, they hadn't had one — I am hopeful yet with regard to the incoming Congress and hope that issues facing folks at the bottom end of the economic scale will be given a lot more consideration in the days to come than they have been given the past few years.

Back in 1999, CNN did a profile of poverty in Appalachia, which included the following, which I still find to be true in parts of West Virginia and the greater Appalachia today:

It's a part of the United States that, to some eyes, might look like another country. Appalachia has been called the forgotten America. But amid poverty and hardship, there's also hope and self-reliance.

At a time of prolonged national prosperity, Appalachia is an area where the clanging bells of Wall Street's economic boom are seldom heard. Where some people live in crowded shacks without plumbing, where health care can fall to Third World levels, where roadside garbage often goes uncollected and where unemployment stands at many times the national average of 4.3 percent.

It is here, a region dotted with economically depressed coal-mining towns, where President Clinton sees untapped commercial potential he hopes to unlock with his "new markets" initiatives — tax credits and loan guarantees for businesses that invest in distressed areas.

There have been limited successes in my state with business initiatives, but the greater question of "poverty" is so much more complex than simply adding more jobs — a lot of which require a good education and/or higher-level skills that many at the lowest levels of economic society simply do not have, and so cannot obtain these new opportunities without further intervention or training of some sort.  West Virginia currently ranks as the fifth poorest state in the nation, and all over Appalachia problems associated with poverty persist with no end in sight.

Certainly personal responsibility plays a role in whatever situation an adult person finds themselves in through the years, but there are fundamental factors that a child of poverty has to overcome that a child born to middle class or upper class parents will never, ever have to face.  And for a child who is physically or mentally abused, or who is born to a mother who never bothered with adequate prenatal care, nutrition or abstention from alcohol or drugs while pregnant, or who doesn't have food to eat or clean clothes to wear, who has no encouragement to get an education and no real parental role model whatsoever growing up — admonishments that as an adult that person should be more responsible can be, at many levels, pretty much incomprehensible.

And for families who fall outside that parameter of at risk kids, who work hard every day at two or three jobs, try to raise their children with optimal parenting, and still find a whole lot more month left at the end of their paychecks — people who are doing everything right and still have a very, very difficult time getting by because they were born to a family tha didn't have a trust fund, didn't emphasize education, didn't…well, you can pretty much fill in the blank. 

Should we simply shut our eyes and walk away from the needs of our fellow citizens?  I say no.  As much as these folks have a responsibility to themselves and their families to do what they can to make their lives better, so should we consider all of the members of our community our concern — not just the folks who don't need a hand up now and then — because it is in how we treat the least of these that we ought to judge our successes.

One of the biggest problems that I have seen is that the question of "poverty" is treated to piecemeal consideration.  You want to lower the birth rate for underage kids in America — but refuse to talk about any sort of education about contraception, other than keep your legs crossed, don't have sex and, if you do, don't talk about it with your parents because they don't want to know.  You want to decrease the number of folks who are homeless — but the greater issues of mental health services having funding cut or drug and alcohol addiction or economic instability for the lower middle class and the increases of families becoing homeless due to health care costs and the new bankruptcy laws that have been devastating for families in that situation…and on and on.

Housing costs in the last few years have skyrocketed all over the country.  Siun forwarded a link to me last night about the housing situation for the poor in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina — and I read the article just shaking my head.  Read for yourself the situation that these two sisters find themselves in, and ask yourself if we cannot do better than this. 

One of the biggest issues that never seems to get play in public discussion is the role that malnutrition and hunger in the lives of poor children plays in their long-term prognosis for the future.  I found some information on this issue relating to poverty in Chicago, and I find it fascinating — and quite disturbing.  As a mother myself, I know how I struggle day in and day out to get my child to eat well, because I have done extensive reading on the importance of this for her health and for her brain development for the long haul.  There are also greater questions as to how this can impact a child in the womb in terms of pre-natal care, things that I have seen with abuse and neglect cases that I have dealt with through the years.

There are so many issues intertwined.  So many issues.

The Eisenhower Foundation has put up video clips from each of the speeches from the forum that I attended on December 12th.  The audio is a little low on the clips that I've viewed, but I highly recommend watching them of you get the time — in particular, Ray Suarez and Colbert King were quite good and hit the points on the media issue squarely where I felt they needed to be hit.  But all of the presentations were on point and very much needed in the run-up to the new Congress being sworn in, and in preparation for the Foundation's follow-up report to be issued in 2008 on the 40th anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report on poverty, inequality, and race in America.

These are issues on which I would like to have a lot more discussion in the weeks and months ahead.  And I wanted to throw this out to all of you to help to shape the conversation. 

What issues do you see in your own communities with regard to these problems and the overarching issue of poverty?  What do you feel most urgently needs to be addressed?  What solutions have been attempted in your community — what has worked, and what has not?  With whom would you like to have discussions on this issue at the national level?  Whose voices do you find most compelling on these issues — and why?

I'm looking forward to all of the responses on this.  And to much, much more discussion to come.