Remembering the Poor

  • This blog first appeared on the DailyKos website on 08.14.16

I am not sure when it became socially acceptable to beat up on the poor and disadvantaged in America. Once, this was not true in the rural South where I grew up.  Everyone struggled. The economy depended on farming, but poor agricultural practices had leached the nutrients from the red clay, until all it was good for - as one of my neighbors put it - was “to hold the world together.” Granted, it could still grow tobacco, but with the government buyout, many farmers cashed out and planted their fields in pine trees. Pine trees take twenty years and few hands to harvest. Without farm jobs, some people moved away to find work. They sacrificed family support networks and the comfort of knowing each person you passed in the road. Leaving kinfolks and community is painful. 

Many others chose to remain and hazard the variable winds of change. Some things stayed the same. Folks ate the deer they killed and the fish they caught and the vegetables they grew, but poverty stalked the community.  The state built a new prison and hired a few guards.  It constructed a waste dump and hired a few bulldozer drivers to manage the mountains of waste trucked up the interstate from the prosperousurban areas where the state focused its economic development programs.  One corporation from the state capitol sent its tanker trucks up and down the county’s main road in the dark, spraying poisonous PCB waste into the roadside ditches because that was cheaper than disposing of it properly. Poor and dispossessed farmers had little power to stop them, and the state government was indifferent.  

What drove this new hostility to the disadvantaged?  America began to embrace the notionthat if you are poor, you must be lazy, shiftless, or ignorant. Poverty must reflect poor decisions or bad character. 

This evaporation of empathy ignores the capriciousness of fortune and global forces in the world that substantively influence our fate.  I know that there are many moments in my own life that would have changed everything for me if they had turned out differently. And Lord knows how many times I was simply lucky enough not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. When I was growing up, people seemed to understand the old saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  But that kind of humility and mercy seems to have gone out of style.   

Many people, especially those in places of power, seem to have forgotten what our parents and grandparents taught us—to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Granted, this is not profitable in the narrow sense.  Capitalism is a powerful economic engine with a weak moral steering mechanism. Without a guiding, leavening hand that considers the wellbeing of all the people, a democratic society can lose its way quickly. And, I suspect in this instance, we have.

Collecting the Signed Moral Declaration Cards

One of the most important things that Rev. Dr. William Barber teaches is that poverty is a moral issue, not just a political or economic tradeoff. Real leaders do not victimize or scapegoat those less fortunate than themselves. Those in power need to be champions of the poor, not their bullies, jailers, and taskmasters.  Leaders must concern themselves with creating avenues that help lift people out of poverty, devising programs that comfort the afflicted and support the weak, and championing legislation that respects the dignity of each individual. America must rebuild an economic and moral steering mechanism calibrated to include the well being of those struggling at the margins. This communitarian focus enriches the spirits of all our people.