One year. One city. Endless opportunities.

"Poor People." Say It: "Poor People."

Perhaps it's the fact that our political leaders find it easier to talk mostly in terms of rich and middle class. Perhaps it's that, despite the increasingly dire headlines about our economic state, we remain blinded by the myths of American exceptionalism, purity of intent and omnipotence.

But whatever the case, don't you think it's well past time our political discussions stopped ignoring the poor?

Like most, I too was saddened by the reports of unrest at Cobo Hall yesterday. But I'm downright pissed that, to some, that's the only reason yesterday's eruption deserved national headlines.

It didn't matter to most that as many as 50,000 people showed up, some from as far away as Flint, seeking government help to either get them off the streets or to keep them from being thrown into the streets. It didn't matter that, the day before, thousands of other state residents had descended on Cobo Hall looking for the same help. No, the poor only became visible and meaningful to most when their frustrations began to boil over at not being able to get applications for aid.

Despite being led by an African-American president born into modest beginnings, the national discussion continues to assiduously avoid talk about how to best help the worst-off among us. The poor continue to be little more than an inconvenience to one political party, a scourge to be wiped out to the other. History has taught me that it wasn't always like this, but for nearly as long as I can remember, poverty in this nation has been treated like some moral failing that only strikes those who deserve it. And since poor people have it coming to them, we figure, we're better off turning our attention and national ministrations to the "rich" and the "middle class," those assumed virtuous by the balance of their checking accounts and the number of SUVs in their driveways. In this stilted, ineffective debate over "Wall Street vs. Main Street," we've turned our backs on the Avenue and the Boulevard.

Already, I've seen headlines accusing those in the throng of being driven by "greed." On these boards even, I've seen comments from people noting that some of those in line were on cellphones, as if to intimate that anybody using some $20 burner from the liquor store couldn't possibly also need government assistance to stay in his or her home.

I'm not saying that poor people don't have an obligation to strive, and frankly, I'm annoyed with myself for even feeling the need to add that caveat. But I also don't think it's a contradiction to say, on one hand, that poor families need substantive attention and assistance and, on the other, that poor children need to excel in biology and English classes.

We need to get past these phony class boundaries surrounding our talk about how to best save our country and beyond this BS "moral" hectoring of the poor. We've also got to stop talking about "the middle class" as though it was some euphemistic catch-all that includes welfare mothers earning $15,000 a year as well as $150,00-a-year accountants. We need a serious plan of action -- and no, this is not what even a welcomed temporary federal grant constitutes -- that does something to address the crushing poverty that's sucking so many Americans under. We need a vision for the worst off as well as for the best off. We need jobs and education on the Boulevard as well as on Main. We need to make the poor a priority again.

Because, given the continued unabated transfer of wealth from those who have next-to-nothing to those who have it all, what we saw yesterday wasn't just about the present conditions facing the poorest metro Detroiters. What we also got was a glimpse of a future that, unless we widen the perimeter of our political discourse, threatens us all.

  • Print
  • Comment
Comments (23)
Post a Comment »
  • 1

    I'm not religious, but if it was good enough for King Solomon, also good enough for us...

    The righteous is concerned for the rights of the poor; the wicked does not understand such concern. Proverbs 29:7.

  • 2

    Excellently articulated. It seems to me we've reached (and maybe have always been at) a point in American society where we'd prefer to turn our backs on problems deemed "unsolvable."

    "for nearly as long as I can remember, poverty in this nation has been treated like some moral failing that only strikes those who deserve it."

    This is so true - and it's also true that Americans, who generally believe in the power of the individual to dictate his or her own destiny, don't seem to want to help those people who can't seem to help themselves.

    But nothing will change if you don't find a way to re-characterize the problem in a way that gives some respect to those who the rest of us have largely given up on.

  • 3

    "Because, given the continued unabated transfer of wealth from those who have next-to-nothing to those who have it all, what we saw yesterday wasn't just about the present conditions facing the poorest metro Detroiters. What we also got was a glimpse of a future that, unless we widen the perimeter of our political discourse, threatens us all."

    Trying to get this point across to others still doing well leads to them looking at me as if I'm some radical insurrectionist or just debarked from a UFO. They have absolutely no concept and don't seem this as anything beyond a Detroit or Michigan problem. Remember all the snarky remarks about a 'one state recession'?

    I'm afraid they'll have to be more directly affected or have '67 style economic riots in their own backyards before they get a clue.

  • 4

    "We need to get past these phony class boundaries surrounding our talk about how to best save our country and beyond this BS "moral" hectoring of the poor."

    Let's talk. What do you suggest we do to help the poor and who do you suggest should do it? Where does the money come from? How do we decide who to help, how much to help, and in what specific way do we help?

    • 4.1

      It's actually not that hard if the politicians want to make the effort. First, restore taxes to pre-Reagan levels. Second, work to restore US manufacturing, which will provide jobs.

      It's not rocket science to see that wealth has become overly consolidated, largely at the expense of the US workforce.

      If you don't understand the concept, go study Henry Ford's $5 day.

  • 5

    Thank you so much for this. I work downtown and it was a sight beyond words yesterday. I was nearly in tears coming back into my office from lunch. I kept thinking we are all poor. They are poor because they can't afford their homes. The rest of us are poor because of our inability to help.

    I saw the cell phone comment too, and I can't imagine how someone could see having a phone as a luxury. Seriously? I bet none of those people had landlines in their homes. I'd like to see ANYBODY function without a phone. Nonetheless someone who is trying to keep their roof over their head (or get one if it's already gone).

    • 5.1

      "The rest of us are poor because of our inability to help"......what a great comment cecile. I saw what happened yesterday...even the people there were astonished....and I'm frustrated in trying to figure out how to help, not just those people but the whole city. Who knows how to organize "help squads" so we can start somewhere? Where do we start? I know there are different organizations one can contribute to, but IMO everything seems so fractured only parts of problems get tackled. The city itself needs cleaning, the people need help with utility bills, grocery's, etc, but those are only a tiny fraction of the problems.

      I know for a fact people are willing and able to jump in and do something, but when you look at the big picture it all seems insurmountable. It isn't.....we just need direction.....what problem(s) need to be handled first in order to start the ball rolling? I give to charities here and there, but that amounts to less than a drop in the bucket. How can we help for real ??

  • 6

    detroitice...I wish I knew where we could start. Whenever I think about helping the first thing that comes to mind was my experience working Get Out The Vote for the Obama campaign this time last year. I have never seen an organization more ORGANIZED in my life. And because of what we represented 95% of the people we talked to were at least glad to see us, even if they didn't join in helping the cause. As we canvassed we improved on the city records of which houses existed, who lived there, who was planning to vote, and we would occasionally pick up another volunteer. Election day our local headquarters was overrun with people that had volunteered to help. Not all of them were effective, and a lot of people that volunteered didn't show...but so many of them did.

    I have no idea how to turn "make detroit a better place to live" into a unifying cause like the obama campaign was. He had the best community organizers in the country working his campaign at the national level and it all just trickled down to us. How do you get that, from scratch, at the ground level? If we could, I feel like all the fractured, small contributions people are making might add up. And really, with 28% unemployment, we've got plenty of people here with nothing better to do. All we need is motivation and organization to get going.

    • 6.1

      You're right cecile.....the Obama campain people were very organized, I think a lot of it was due to the Internet (sometimes technology is good, lol). IMO much of the reluctance or hesitation to dive in and help Detroit is due to the history of trying to deal with the city councel / Mayor (not just Kilpatrick) etc. There have been lots of good ideas that were shot down for ridiculous reasons, or just never even considered in the first place. People just got tired of even trying. Now the city is in such dire straits something has to be done soon, or else it'll be like the global warming thing ....supposedly if we don't clean up our act right now we may as well forget it, it's too late to fix. We can't let that happen to Detroit.
      I wish we could just start at one end of the city and start sweeping and fixing, and not quit until we get to the other side.

      PS: Obama went to Chicago due to the horrible problem with school shootings ........I wish he would come here and visit, it may just provide the spark that people need.

  • 7

    PS: I may be mistaken about Obama visiting Chicago.....maybe it was just that he formed a task force to study the problem......I should have checked first.......sorry if I got that wrong .............

  • 8

    Question: "Because, given the continued unabated transfer of wealth from those who have next-to-nothing to those who have it all..." This is what, exactly? And what is the more than trillions we've spent on welfare programs in the last half century? I thought the wealth was being transferred the other way. Evidence, please.

    • 8.1

      Tom, you might try this article from 2001:

      It was the most recent thing I could find on my lunch hour, but I think it's a good start. I will not claim to have read the whole thing, but the executive summary implies that most of the money is at the top and it kept moving that direction between 1989 and 2001. I can't find anything from 2001 to 2009 (although again, not spending much time on this), but I can't imagine the Bush admin moved things in the other direction.

      Wikipedia also has a good entry on distribution of wealth, with some reliable looking references (with graphs, yay!). You might want to check into those as well.

      Hope that helps!

    • 8.2

      Tom, I tried to respond with some links for your reference, but they appear to have been moderated. Check out the Wikipedia article on "distribution of wealth" and there is a good explanation of what Darrell is referring to. I particularly liked the Federal Reserve Board - Survey of Consumer Finances reference, especially the graphs. Sadly, the amount of money spent on welfare doesn't even register on the scale of distribution of wealth in the US. Hope those references help!

    • 8.3

      From past experience I've learned this software allows only one link per post to avoid landing in moderation mode.

  • 9

    Darrell, excellent article. I'm glad most of the comments have been of the type to want to help.

    I don't have answers either. I live in the suburbs, but also worked on the Obama campaign. It was exhilarating to accomplish something so historic. How to transfer that to the current situation is probably not an easy answer. How do you mobilize an entire geographic area around a city to turn it around? We did it on a small scale for the Super Bowl, for a short time. But those were just external trappings. But people did volunteer to make us look good. How do you sustain it?

    Since Hurricane Katrina, I have not kept up on what is happening there. I recall reading articles that said they were forcing those left homeless by the flooding to leave the trailers supplied by the government. Where did the trailers go? Where did the people go? Are they rebuilding, or did they move, re-settle in the areas they moved to (Houston, also Michigan)? I only mention this, because it's another issue of the "poor" being left to their own resources to get back on their feet. It can't happen. It doesn't happen in this country.

    Maybe it's time for the counties surrounding Michigan (those counties also have poorer areas like Pontiac, Mt Clemens, Inkster) to organize teams to come up with ideas. It's obvious the city of Detroit cannot solve this on their own. Once the new council is selected this fall, hopefully there will be less corruption, more cooperation with the surrounding Southeast Michigan communities, and we can try something.

    On the national front, IMO, until there are more beneficial trade policies with countries like China and India, who have an expanded middle class now due to us shopping at the Dollar Stores and other discount places, things won't turn around for the poor. Their jobs are being done by formerly third world country citizens who have benefited from our policies to ship all work, including telephonic help desks, across the oceans.

    My part to fix this? I shop as often as possible at the Salvation Army stores and buy second hand items, including clothing, that does not appear to have been manufactured outside the US. I may be fooling myself, because even designer clothes may be made elsewhere, but I've gotten great bargains, and am not putting NEW dollars in the hands of the "trading partners". I'm also helping a worthwhile cause that gives back to the poor.

    • 9.1

      I think part of what happened after Katrina is that some of those folks were poor before and nothing was going to change that fact -- they weren't getting on their feet without a hurricane and they weren't going to get on their feet after.

      Don't take that the wrong way -- I hear what everyone is saying about the assumption that if you are not successful, it must be entirely your own fault -- circumstances, bad luck, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, none of that could have anything to do with it. Anyone who has been poor knows that's a lot of rubbish. I've never been rich, but I am doing OK now after being pretty darned low most of my life -- and the turnaround was only due in part to my education, persistence and drive -- I had that all along. A lot of it had to do with luck and finally being in the RIGHT place at the right time.

      But we are a very judgmental people.

  • 11

    Right on, anounceofaction.

    So long as Detroit (or any of us) keeps looking to corporations to save us with jobs, we'll just keep right on helping the few with all the wealth take more and more from the poor to line our pockets.

    In the Time magazine article for 5 Oct, I think it was, there was a photo of a fella who is building hoop farms on vacant lots in Detroit. Now there's an idea -- Detroit has only about half the people it once had, with lots of semi-empty space. Use what can be used to produce LOCALLY what people need -- like food. Put unemployed folks to work producing food to feed themselves and their neighbors -- and leave the corporations out of it. Do the same for clothing and other essentials of life.

    Detroit is wiped back so far that it has an opportunity to truly start fresh and NOT make the same mistakes as have been made time and again. Don't go with the profit-greedy corporations and their politician puppets who put you in this jam in the first place -- make yourselves self-sufficient -- lots of very small businesses working to product locally what will be consumed locally, using sustainable, green processes all around -- and Detroit could be the exemplary city of the future.

    Invite all those Big Businesses back in -- and you're just asking to be dumped on all over again.

  • 12

    Oops -- serious typo -- I meant -- taking more and more from us to line THEIR pockets. (Sometimes I get a little too passionate and my fingers take off on their own)

  • 13

    Darrel, I appreciate your response. However, what you, Krugman and others are describing is a MIGRATION of wealth, not a TRANSFER. Transfer is an active motion, as in when wealth is transferred from the producers to the non-producers. (We call this welfare, entitlement programs, government assistance, etc.) This has been going on since the New Deal (and longer), to the tune of trillions-plus dollars, and, as you've rightly noted, this has not solved the problem. The argument can certainly be made that we're not transferring ENOUGH wealth from the haves to the have-nots. But to make the argument that there is somehow an organized and deliberate transfer of wealth by an omnipotent third party (like government) the OTHER way, to me, belies the facts and defies logic. Maybe we don't like the fact that the well off are doing better than the less fortunate... completely on board there. But we definitely agree to disagree about the merits as to how that wealth is gained, who it "belongs" to, and who it should be transferred to and from. As for talking about this, isn't that what we're doing now? I see nothing BUT talking...on T.V., in the press, on blogs, talk radio, in Lansing and Washington. We've been talking about this for years, it's just that no one's listening...and no one's coming up with any new solutions beyond more of the same.

    Keep up the great work. Love the blog.

    • 13.1

      Oh, I get it! When we want to raise taxes on the wealthy because they are getting too much money (often via predatory behavior towards workers) it's a "transfer" but when the wealthy enjoy substantial tax cuts that take their taxes to historic lows it becomes a different animal called wealth "migration."

      What a crock.

  • 14

    [...] the chaos at Cobo made for easy headlines and even easier cracks about Detroit and poor people. And it served as a great launch pad for the phony moral outrage of the gasbags who love to attack [...]

Add Your Comment:

You must be logged in to post a comment.
The Detroit Blog Daily E-mail

Get e-mail updates from TIME's The Detroit Blog in your inbox and never miss a day.

More News from Our Partners

Quotes of the Day »

NICHOLAS FISHER, expert at Stony Brook University in New York who took part in a study which found that bluefin tuna contaminated with radiation believed to be from Fukushima Daiichi were present off the coast of California just five months after the nuclear meltdown.