Charlotte, N.C. -- George Farmer does not want to be here when the Democrats come to town. Personally, he says, thats the time I want to be so far away from here. Im almost at a place where that has nothing to do with me.
But Farmer, trim and soft spoken at 61, is homeless. So when the Democratic National Convention convenes Tuesday, he is likely to be found in the same place he has been for more than a year: the Charlotte Mens Shelter, blocks from the arena where conventioneers will gather.
His desire to get away from the conclave has nothing to do with fears of congestion or inconvenience. Nor, for that matter, with any particular disagreement with Democratic politics.
I voted, he says. He is perched on a chair in a sparsely furnished office of the shelter he calls home. I voted for Obama, and I was real active in those things. And now, with this situation thats come up, I have a tendency to look at things like: Those thatll be here are people that havent been subjected to the things we have. Itll be a gathering, to me, of people that are well-to-do not for people who have struggled.
People who have struggled.
Them that aint got.
The busted and disgusted.
An invisible army
Whatever your preferred euphemism, know this: They are an army and they are growing. The poverty rate stands at 15.1 percent as of 2010, the last year for which statistics are available. In North Carolina, the rate is even higher at 17.5 percent. In absolute numbers, the national rate translates to 46.2 million Americans, the most ever recorded in the 53 years America has been calculating poverty.
The federal government defines poverty as a person under 65 living alone on less than $11,344 a year or a family of four scraping by on less than $22,113. But the folks who live there know that poverty is more than just a number. It is the job you dont get because the bus doesnt go there. It is shorting the gas bill in order to pay the rent. It is miss-meal cramps and going to the mall for the air conditioning. It is a gnawing insufficiency that never goes away, having not enough in a land of plenty. It is walking life like a tightrope because the hit that might only wobble someone else illness, loss of hours, an unexpected bill will knock you clean off.
And, it is an invisibility so complete as to deny your very existence, the experience of having people look right at you and never see you.
Which is the point of George Farmers observation and his antipathy.
When President Barack Obama is renominated this week, you can expect much to be said about what he will do for the middle class, much more to be said about the obligations of the upper class. You can expect silence about the needs of the underclass. This from the former community organizer who once described urban poverty as the cause that led me to a life of public service.
Obamas silence is hardly unique. With the singular exception of the unfortunate former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, it is difficult, if not impossible, to name a politician who has made poverty a cornerstone issue since Lyndon Johnson spoke out for the Americans who live on the outskirts of hope.
Johnsons War on Poverty was the culmination of decades in which the nation stirred by the journalist Jacob Riis, galvanized by the country populist Huey Long, roused by the writer John Steinbeck, and led through a crushing economic crucible by the president, Franklin Roosevelt came to identify the fight against poverty as a moral imperative.