By Mike Thompson, Contributing Writer
Heading toward the presidential election, through three debates, neither candidate uttered the word "poverty." That's sad and tragic, and while this omission is a lousy reflection upon both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, it's also a lousy reflection on mainstream U.S. society, at least in political terms.
In such a close election, it would likely be political suicide for either Obama or Romney to speak with any sympathy toward people most in need. There would be a backlash, and accusations of "big government" and even "socialism" from the other side. Obama also is branded as "the food stamp president," although he speaks rarely about increasing food aid during times of economic recession.
Both candidates harp on uplifting the "middle class," which somehow has transformed to include families making up to $250,000 per year. Every rare once in a while, I've heard Obama add that he aims to uplift the poor into the middle class. But only every rare once in a while.
Making matters worse, the Associated Press reports that as census data continues to be amassed (the Census Bureau remains active in between the every-decade counts), the poverty rate is soaring toward 15.7 percent, the highest since the War on Poverty started during the middle 1960s. Based on my memories of the idealistic mid- and late-60s, if there had been presidential debates back then, poverty most certainly would have been on the agenda.
So why has poverty become a blind spot in our general political discourse? Some critics will say it's because of frustration at lack of progress, because the War on Poverty has been a failure. After all, we've spent all this money, and one in six families still is officially poor -- for example, an income of less than $23,000 for a four-person household. I disagree; I'd hate to think of how things would be without the various War on Poverty programs, at least the ones that have survived and that have not been stripped bare.
Other critics will assert that a culture of dependency has been created. Any of us who are honest must admit we have seen some individual examples of this, but too many of us ignore what activist Peter Edelman described as a "tidal wave" of minimum wage jobs. The vast majority of households in poverty are headed by the working poor. I don't understand why the hard-hearted among this fail to see this.
Amid all the analysis, I personally observe and sense a compassion deficit. I hate to say this, because it makes me sound holier and more caring than thou. Still, I'm only being honest. When Romney's "47 percent" comment was unveiled, falsely implying that nearly half of Americans are "takers" who rely on government while not paying taxes, the first reaction among national pundits was that this revelation would severely harm his campaign. My own reaction, to the contrary, was that the 47 percent remark would actually help Romney among the population's resentful and bitter element of people, and it seems that's been closer to the truth.
Most people I encounter are courteous, kind individuals. So why is our politics so spiteful, that neither candidate will even risk talking much about uplifting our brothers and sisters (and our children) in need? To tell the truth, I'm stumped.
By Mike Thompson, Contributing Writer
Call me naive. Call me out of touch. Or call me a conservative.
I don't feel I'm any of those, but maybe it's true. I simply don't quite believe the leaders of Feeding America, the nation's leading food provider, when they say one in six citizens face hunger on a regular basis.
I get around -- in fact, I've volunteered to oversee children's Summer Food Program lunches -- and I simply don't see it. People fall short of food, but they usually get help. Children are most at risk but when they go hungry, the cause most often is family dysfunction rather than poverty.
I agree that one of six families -- far more, in some areas -- need support from food stamps. I agree with Feeding America's legislative activism to combat tea party threats to nutrition programs.
However, advocates should strive to avoid exaggeration, especially during today's divisive and hostile politics.
That being said, there is much to gain from visiting the Feeding America website. Many stereotypes are demolished, most vividly that poverty is essentially an urban problem. Poverty is everywhere. Feeding America reports that greatest hardship in D.C., which we might expect, and the state of Oregon, which we wouldn't.
Also, we all should be aware that food banks can make a little bit of money go a long way by obtaining surplus food and buying in bulk.
Here's the website: http://feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america.aspx
By Mike Thompson, Contributing Writer
Haven't been panhandled lately, but have been thinking of the questions. Give or don't give directly? Cash, coins or food? Acknowledge or ignore?
This is on my mind because in my Michigan hometown of Saginaw, six police officers shot and killed a mentally ill homeless man during the summer, and there has been all sorts of controversy. To know more, there is the option of Googling for "Milton Hall Saginaw." My own feeling, shared by many others, is that the cops could have restrained Milton instead of gunning him down, although he was brandishing a knife. But back to panhandling.
One person who commented on a blog said they had encountered Milton, and that he was aggressive and had scared them. Many of the pro-cops opinions have been biased, but this is one I can understand even though is didn't justify shooting Milton. Being older in age and not having been in an altercation since I was a kid, I don't want to get hooked up in a street-side hockey fight. Indeed, a homeless panhandler can be scary in some rare instances.
I suppose the best reaction is to say, "Look, I don't have anything either." There have been a few times when a panhandler looked at me with sort of screwy surprise after I said, "Dang, what a coincidence, I was just about to ask YOU for a dollar." (It reflects on my near-senior citizen status to recall back when a mere quarter was worth what a dollar's worth nowadays.)
I did some web-searching, and there were suggestions such as, if near a food service place, offer to get the panhandler some food, which makes sense. There are other considerations, though. Whether money or food, encouraging the panhandler may lead to more panhandling, harmful to nearby business establishments in their everyday quests to attract customers.
One thing I learned from the web search, from a writeup by a former panhandler doing better now, is to not ignore the solicitor. At least offer some human acknowledgement, being a glance and a few words, even if you have nothing to offer or you choose not to offer anything. Don't just walk by with a stiff neck.
We can always soothe our consciences, of course, by donating to shelters and soup kitchens and food banks, but when encountering a panhandler directly, this seems like sort of a cop-out.
Usually, I just sort of say to myself what-the-hang, reach in my pocket, and give some coins.
Also, was surprised to see that the municipal website for what would seem to be a prosperous university town -- Bloomington, Indiana -- devotes an entire entry to advice in regards to panhandling.
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