But those days are gone. The poor have disappeared from our political consciousness and conscience. Nor is that disappearance only political. It is also cultural. African-American music once filled radios with the lament of the poor. In the 1930s, Billie Holiday sang, Them thats got shall get, them thats not shall lose. In the 60s, Stevie Wonder sang that he was a poor mans son from across the railroad track. In the 70s the Temptations sang, Money, I aint got none. Job, cant find one. In 2010, Lloyd Banks rapped, Beamer, Benz or Bentley, my jeans are never empty. African-American music is now a song of conspicuous consumption and product placement.
Poor people also are absent from television. In dramas, they are seldom seen, except as victims or criminals. Sitcom families, with few exceptions the Evanses of Good Times, the Sanfords of Sanford and Son, the Conners of Roseanne are always happily middle class if not flat out wealthy.
Nor do the poor fare much better in news media. When Hurricane Katrina sacked New Orleans and reports told us how thousands of Americans were so entrenched in poverty as to lack the means to escape a killer storm, one word was heard over and over again from newspeople and observers: surprised. As in the reader who emailed the New York Times, saying, I was surprised to learn of the poverty conditions that prevailed in New Orleans. Why didnt the economic-social-racial conditions in New Orleans get some attention in the paper?
Bashing the poor
And in the face of this silence, it has become increasingly fashionable in some corners to bash the poor in language that is literally inhuman. For instance, former South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer likened poor people to stray animals one ought not feed at the back door, Ann Coulter said welfare creates irresponsible animals and Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning compared the poor to scavenging raccoons.
George Farmer is not a scavenging raccoon. He used to drive trucks for a living. Then he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He tried to go on working, but couldnt. Then his car broke down.
Just a lot of things, he says. Went from a house to an apartment to a room situation and really couldnt afford that. So the shelter was my option.
The experience, he says, has taught him to appreciate the tiny graces he once took for granted. Just everyday life, he says, working and coming home to a place where you can select clothes from a rack as opposed to digging in a bag trying to find something to put on. To be in line to take a shower, to be in line to eat, soup kitchens and stuff that was not really common to me. This was not something that I couldve seen myself (experiencing) at this point in my life.
It troubles him that people think homeless is something he decided to be, some bad choice he made or moral defect he carries. I mean, kids on buses come by and blurt out things and look at it as like, a life youve chosen, as opposed to, these are the turn of events that took place that brought you here.
The single mom
Come now and sit with Michelle she doesnt want her last name used for a moment. She is a single mother of four girls, two of them in college on scholarships. She is meeting with Kyle Walker, a woman who works as a counselor for Crisis Assistance Ministry. As the name implies, it exists to help people who have hit some unforeseen emergency that throws them off the tightrope. Michelles rent is overdue and her lights are about to be shut off.