During the YouTube debate on CNN, there was a moment from John Edwards, that was as compassionate as it was fiery, regarding a 51 year old Virginia man who had lived his entire life until the age of 50 unable to speak due to a cleft palate. Edwards had met James Lowe on his tour to highlight poverty issues across the heartland of America at a stop in Wise, Virginia (YouTube).
The fact that this man only got this life-altering operation when a benefactor stepped in to help him after living fifty years without being able to speak breaks my heart…and it should be an object lesson in how our current system is geared.
Imagine for a moment what this must have been like for this man as a child growing up. The teasing, the taunts, the nastiness…and then he had to live with it for 50 years until someone stepped in to help give him a voice. Imagine what that first word must have felt like for him…and try not to weep. There is something wrong with us as a nation if this does not matter enough to us to think about a better way than what we are doing now.
I followed along with the Edwards’ poverty tour across America vicariously through the YouTubes and audio clips. There are some great YouTube clips from places as far apart as New Orleans to Youngstown, Ohio, and a whole lot in between, that are worth the watching. And not for John Edwards so much as for the very real people with whom he is speaking — you see a lot of what life can throw at you through their eyes.
Recent Census estimates reveal that the population percentage considered severely poor has reached a 32-year high. Between 2000 and 2005, the percent living at half of poverty-level income increased by 26%. The descent into destitution spares no community or group in society. America’s urban, suburban and rural communities are all witnesses to the growth of what adds up to the “abject poor.”
The abjectly poor in America are individuals living on $5,250 a year. For a family of three, two adults and a child, the level of income is $6,922; for a family of four, $10,222. This level of poverty in comparative terms is only slightly above the poverty line originally set in the 1960s and affords a person little more than food and shelter….
Even more sobering is the fact that the number of severely poor is growing rapidly. In 1975 the severely poor were 30% of the population in poverty. Today a dismaying 43% of persons in poverty are severely poor by national standards. But more embarrassing than the share of the poverty population truly poor is the increase in the number of persons descending into severe poverty. While the rate of new entrants moving into poverty is somewhat stable, those who are becoming truly poor are increasing at a rate 56% higher than the growth rate of new entrants into poverty.
No demographic is immune to its reach. The severely poor are more likely to be of working age than young or old, though a large share of the truly poor are children under seventeen. The largest number of abjectly poor are white (two times as many as blacks), but blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately likely to be most affected. Women, the prime target of welfare reform, on a proportionate basis are one third more likely to face deep poverty than men….
After Katrina hit our shores, I so hoped that this would be a moment of reckoning and that poverty would, for once, become the centerpiece issue that it needs to be. Alas, it was a good prop for television cameras for a couple of weeks, and it has receded into the background again.
Except with the Edwards campaign. But what has the media focus been on Edwards? Fluff and cancer.
Here’s a news flash: John Edwards has made a lot of money in his lifetime. He was a trial lawyer who took plaintiff’s cases and was very, very good at what he did. I like to think of it as responsible corporate accountability by proxy. They live in a very large house — built with money they earned over a lifetime for a family that may again experience a loss. Want to know what I think about that? Good for them and it’s none of my business. (Same goes for any of the other candidates houses because, let’s be honest, just about all of them have shitloads of money. Let’s not fool ourselves.)
Haircut? Don’t gave a crap. Anyone who is involved in a public relations business, including each and every political pundit out there who mocked the haircut, is slathered with mondo-expensive face creams, gets regular facials, has a make-up artist on call and sits in the chair getting foil highlights. Including the male pundits. It’s called television. To pretend otherwise is to be a disingenuous liar — and they all know it, even the wingnuts — who…news flash…do it, too.
There have been a recent spate of news articles about Elizabeth Edwards’ fight against her stage four breast cancer and its effects on her family and the campaign. One recent one in the Wall Street Journal highlighted the juggling act that Mrs. Edwards is doing between her medical concerns, treatments, family considerations and the campaign trail — with Elizabeth saying that she doesn’t want to talk about dying, she wants to talk about all the things that need to be done now, and then the reporter chasing down a quote from someone else about the possibility that her cancer may win sooner than she would like.
It is her reality, but it is a bit ghoulish to constantly be throwing it in her face and that of her family — especially when Elizabeth’s cancer is the only positive thing that media types seem to be throwing at the Edwards’ campaign these days. (And how is that for a media irony — cancer as a plus?) That’s just downright weird, especially knowing that John Edwards has a very solid lead at the moment in Iowa — with both Clinton and Obama losing ground as of the last polling there, and Bill Richardson moving up a bit.
I had read the WSJ article several days ago, but hadn’t written about it because, frankly, it seems like piling on to go through this issue again. But then today, another one cropped up in the WaPo, and I felt the need to say something. Look, I’ve read Elizabeth’s book, even did a review of it — and the story of heartache and loss and the battle against cancer is certainly interwoven in both their lives. It has shaped who they are and what they stand for as surely as my personal battles through the years have shaped me and the way your battles have shaped you.
But it is what we do once we get past the hurdles that get thrown in our path that matters. Focusing solely on the hurdles is a convenient means of ignoring the work that goes into topping them — or the helping hand that may have been extended to other folks who may be trying to top them as well.
Can we grow up in American politics just this once and put our eye on the real ball?
The infotainment, personal story of triumph over tragedy, biographical sketches are fabulous, sure, because Elizabeth Edwards has an amazing story to tell. But for my money, the most interesting part of the whole thing is what she and John Edwards have done with their grief: they didn’t curl up in a little ball and recede from the world, they threw themselves back into the world in their son’s name. They opened a computer center at Wade’s high school so that disadvantaged kids would have a place to do their homework with some tutorial help that they weren’t going to get at home. They opened a poverty center in North Carolina that has been working with scholarships and other means of advancing higher education for the rural poor.
And they have kept the painful topic of poverty in America on the table when so many other politicians just sweep it under the rug.
Poverty doesn’t poll well as an issue. Most people would rather not think about what they aren’t doing to help the least of these in our communities. And there are a whole host of folks out there who think people are poor because they are lazy. Although certainly personal responsibility can be a factor in moving out of poverty as much as some serious hard work and a little luck can be a help…but a health crisis without any health insurance, being born to parents who are drug or alcohol addicts, being sexually abused as a child or having a job that suddenly downsizes you to living in your car can also come into play, and where do you assess fault for any of those?
There but for the grace of God go us all. And we all do well to remember it. True compassion isn’t pointing a finger and assessing blame, it is looking the mistakes that we are making square in the face, rolling up our sleeves and saying how can we do better and how can we help get us there. To help all of us get to higher ground, not just a privileged few, because that is the right thing, the decent thing, the compassionate thing to do. More of that, please.
PS — And a happy anniversary to John and Elizabeth Edwards today.