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Political News Swallows Story of Grinding Poverty

NNPA , Commentary, Julianne Malveaux Posted: Sep 22, 2008

The political hoopla has obscured a critical new data release about poverty. As the respective political camps debate their agendas, there is evidence that people at the bottom of the economic spectrum are still scratching their way toward survival, and that, despite proclamations by President Bush and Republican candidate John McCain that the economy is strong, the real deal is that nothing has improved for the poor.

The U.S. Department of Census released data on Aug. 26 that showed that one in eight Americans live in poverty. The numbers are larger for people of color, with one in four Black households experiencing poverty, and more than one in five (21 percent) of Hispanic households experiencing poverty. The differences are simply a function of income and household status.

While White families had an average income of $54,000, Black families had an average income of $33,000, and Hispanic families had an average income of $38,000.

Some cities had staggering poverty rates. In Detroit, for example, a third of the people are poor. Cleveland is another city with extremely high poverty. Invariably, the cities with high poverty are Black and Brown, old and young, and also industrially abandoned. When there are turnaround efforts, they are snagged up with the politics of race, class, and sometimes gentrification.

Every number represents an urban tragedy, but the news cycle has not taken us past the numbers. The macroeconomic story of poverty and joblessness is compelling, but the microeconomic story is heartbreaking.
I get email daily from brothers and sisters trying to make it and finding survival a basic challenge. A woman wrote that she spent a year at an historically Black college or university but cannot get a transcript because she has not paid her outstanding bill. She did not return to school because an aging parent required her care, and when the parent died, she lost any inheritance she might have hoped for because an older sibling staked a better-documented claim. Family challenges left her homeless and she is looking for a chance to complete her education. She is a victim of family drama, but also of an economy that cannot embrace her, and a higher education system that will close doors unless she is properly financed.

She wont be properly financed in the current climate, yet this young, bright, focused Black woman deserves a place at the educational and employment table.

The higher education act does not have room for herit barely has the dollars for minimally funded Pell grants.

To criticize this Higher Education Act, my colleagues say, is to bite the hand that feeds too many HBCUs. The fact is that our nation can only prevent poverty by investing in education, and heretofore, our investments have been scant and insufficient.

The Census data would suggest that we have invested in health care. The number of people who lack health care has dropped by about a million, with 47 million lacking health insurance in 2006, and 45.7 million lacking health insurance in 2007. This may be described as commendable, but it may also be described as political sleight of hand. Because of changes in Medicare rules, a million or so more people, mostly children, get a break. But our health care system still fails to deliver for many working Americans. Our monthly data on employment and unemployment suggest that there is insufficient value for the workers whose efforts keep our economy alive. Health care is the tip of the iceberg, with data woefully insufficient because we fail to capture the burden some families take on when they simply try to pay their share of a health care premium or a co-payment.

Unemployment is another part of the challenge families face, with too many being shrugged off so forcefully that they dont turn up in the data. Thus, in a period when economic growth has been robust, the poverty level has not dropped. This is the story that may have been swallowed in the middle of the political rhetoric. If poor people could organize, they would offer a compelling statement about the ways poverty data has been ignored in favor of so-called breaking news.

Julianne Malveaux is president of Bennett College for Women. This commentary was distributed by NNPA.

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