Poverty politics

The Baltimore Sun

Homelessness and poverty are among the most misunderstood, patronized and politically expedient issues out there. Both political parties think nothing of using the destitute as a tool to score debating points against the other. Pundits - liberal and conservative - tee up the poor or the homeless to illustrate a point that strengthens their partisan argument.

As one who grew up on welfare and was often homeless as a child, I admit to being protective of a class of people that is shunned by all but a rare few in society.

John Edwards, in his quest for "economic justice" for the poor of America, began and ended his presidential campaign in the crippled Ninth Ward of New Orleans. To me, a conservative, Mr. Edwards has never seemed particularly sincere. However, as someone who was humbled by abject poverty, I appreciate the fact that, whatever his motivation, he has brought much-needed attention to an issue that begs for a constant media spotlight. It is gratifying, too, that upon his exit from the presidential campaign, Mr. Edwards said that Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama "have both pledged to me and, more importantly, through me to America, that they will make ending poverty central to their campaign for the presidency."

However, neither the Democrat nor the Republican nominee is ever going to make "ending poverty" central to his or her campaign - because it's impossible. Poverty will always be with us. The poor don't need spin. They need someone to walk a mile in their shoes and protect them from disingenuous politicians and ivory tower academics trying to socially engineer lives they couldn't possibly understand.

More importantly, they need a place at the table at the next congressional hearing. They need to be able to tell their stories without the filter of ignorance. No "experts." No "advocates." Just stark reality.

During the course of his campaign, Mr. Edwards often said, "Tonight, across this country, 200,000 men and women who wore our uniform ... will go to sleep under bridges and on grates." That statement elicited a rebuttal from Bill O'Reilly, of the Fox News Channel, that I found particularly offensive.

Mr. O'Reilly said: "Here's the truth about poverty in America, Mr. Edwards. ... If you earn less than $10,000, you are poor. If a family of four earns less than $21,000, they are poor. Yet according to the government census, poor households in America have lots of stuff. Ninety-seven percent have a color TV, 78 percent a DVD player, 80 percent an air conditioner, 73 percent a car or truck, 63 percent cable or satellite TV, and 43 percent of poor households in the U.S.A. own the home they are living in."

I've been on Mr. O'Reilly's show a couple of times and have a great deal of respect for him. As much as the left and many in the media may deny it, Mr. O'Reilly does try to be an honest broker on his program. That said, his "welfare queen" attack on the poor is as misleading as it is hurtful.

In the same "talking points" memo in which he goes after Mr. Edwards, Mr. O'Reilly says, "I am living proof that you can start with very little and prosper economically if you work hard and keep it honest."

Perhaps Mr. O'Reilly did not grow up in luxury. But does he have any idea what crushing poverty is really like? Does Mr. O'Reilly know what it's like to continually have your phone, your electricity, and your gas shut off for nonpayment? Does he know what it's like to be continually evicted from your apartment? Does he know what it's like to go without heat for days or weeks in the dead of winter?

I doubt he really does. I know most politicians don't.

Since I was a child, I have always bristled at those who would use "but they have a color TV" as an argument against the poor. It's lazy, intellectually dishonest, and shows a complete lack of empathy. Sometimes, those now amazingly inexpensive TVs or DVD players are the only mental escape the poor have. Beyond the front door, they often face crime, lawlessness, gang and drug warfare, and a horrific life that only those who live it can imagine.

And since when did having air conditioning to cool your children and a car to get you to your job denote wealth?

I think Mr. O'Reilly has a good heart, and he clearly has tremendous power and outreach. Instead of taking a cheap shot, maybe he will offer to dedicate at least two entire programs per year to the plight of the homeless. He will then discover that not all are alcoholics, drug addicts or mentally impaired. Many are just children and adults who have lost their way.

As for both political parties, wake me from my fainting spell if, come 2010, either of them has done anything more for the poor than to exploit them.

Times are getting tougher. The homeless are increasing in number, and apart from election-year rhetoric, most pundits and politicians continue to ignore their struggle. Shame on them, and on us.

Douglas MacKinnon, a former White House and Pentagon official, is the author of the forthcoming novel, "The Apocalypse Directive." His e-mail is dmackinnon@sandw.com.

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