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Bill Moyers: “Invisible Americans Get the Silent Treatment”


It’s just astonishing to us how long this campaign has gone on with no discussion of what’s happening to poor people. Official Washington continues to see poverty with tunnel vision – “out of sight, out of mind.”

So begins this post by Bill Moyers, whose title is included in the title of this post.

Too often poor people are forgotten in our politics.

It is appropriate to read the words of Moyers on this topic on this day, which would be the 104th birthday of his mentor, Prsident Lyndon Baines Johnson, vastly underrated as a President, whose Great Society programs did as much to alleviate poverty and discrimination in this country as did any other President, being matched only by the New Deal of FDR (which unfortunately did not address discrimination).

Moyers makes clear this is not just an issue for Mitt Romney and the Republicans – he reminds us of a President who said in his first book about why he went to Harvard Law after serving as a community organizer in Chicago

“I would learn power’s currency in all its intricacy and detail” and “bring it back like Promethean fire.”

  And yet,

Oddly, though, for all his rhetorical skills, Obama hasn’t made a single speech devoted to poverty since he moved into the White House.

Perhaps it is because I have had glimpses of what poverty means, not merely in urban neighborhoods in our great and once-great cities, but in rural areas, the latter as a result of my volunteering in free medical-dental fairs in the Appalachian Mountains of Southwest Virginia.  I know that the needs and hurts of poverty are not issues just for people of color – there are more poor whites than there are poor blacks and far more than there are poor Native Americans (whose treatment in our nation remains a shame and a blot on our national honor).  

We recently learned that the number of Americans living at or below 125% of poverty will reach 66 million this year.  Moyers reminds us of the importance of that 125% figure:  it

is the income limit to qualify for legal aid, but although that family may qualify for help, budgets for legal services have been slashed, too, and pro bono work at the big law firms has fallen victim to downsizing. So it’s not surprising, the AP goes on to say, that there’s a crisis in America’s civil courts because people slammed by the financial meltdown – overwhelmed by foreclosure, debt collection and bankruptcy cases – can’t afford legal representation and have to represent themselves, creating gridlock in our justice system – and one more hammer blow for the poor.

While I was still in public schools I saw the increasing number of children arriving at school unfed, even our middle class neighborhood.  I know the demands for supplemental nutrition assistance programs (SNAP is the replacement for food stamps) and Free and Reduced Lunches has skyrocketed at a time when the resources for such programs and for private foodbanks has shrunk.  I know that ALL of the difference in US performance on international comparisons of public schools cna be explained by our high degree of childhood poverty, that in schools with less than 10% poor children – a rate twice that of high scoring Findland – our academic performance is better than that of ANY other country in the world.

And yet we ignore the issue of the poor.  It is not a campaign issue.  One party and its presidential candidate apparently wants us to believe that services for the poor are provided only to “others” – yes, that is a racist dog whistle, even though as I noted there are more poor whites, often invisible.  Perhaps many of them do not avail themselves of government support because they have been culturally conditioned not to, that such programs are a sign of weakness, that only those “others” use them.   And the suffering continues.

But if Democrats will not stand up for ALL Americans, including the poor – regardless of the color of their skins – then we are betraying our heritage and we have not right to claim that we should be in charge of the instruments of our government and our society.

No Americans should be invisible.  The needs of all Americans should be part of our political discourse.

Or as Moyers puts it in his final paragraph:  

We know, we know: It is written that, “The poor will always be with us.” But when it comes to our “out of sight, out of mind” population of the poor, you have to think we can help reduce their number, ease the suffering, and speak out, with whatever means at hand, on their behalf and against those who would prefer they remain invisible. Speak out: that means you and me, and yes, Mr. President, you, too. You once told the big bankers on Wall Street that you were all that stood between them and the pitchforks of an angry public. How about telling the poor you will make sure our government stands between them and the cliff?


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