America discovers its underclass

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“So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this, this is working out very well for them.”

—Barbara Bush, elderly rich aristocrat, visiting the Astrodome


Suddenly, we found out that, gee whiz, everybody in America doesn’t have a fancy car, a cell phone that takes pictures or even wireless Internet.

Thanks to Hurricane Katrina, we were forced to discover the existence of a vast underclass that hardly ever buys on eBay. Viewers of cable television were fascinated all last week by interviews with people who have never had a credit card or owned a car or even a bank account.

Barbara Bush, wife of one clueless president and mother of another, has taken a lot of heat for the now-famous quote atop this column. But it does show she was at least aware of the poor. And while she wouldn’t use this term, she clearly recognizes the value of a vast surplus labor army.

Naturally, anybody who paid attention to the white-haired wonder over the years knows what a cold, snooty fossil she is. Twenty years ago, when her lightweight husband was in a vice presidential debate against Geraldine Ferraro, Barbara looked at the woman who had actually gotten somewhere on her own.

“Rhymes with rich,“ she sneered to a reporter. Lovely woman, Babs. But while it might never occur to her to see the poor as having any human dignity, she, unlike your typical Birmingham yuppie, doesn’t want to forget they are there. You gotta have those folks. One never knows when a splendid little war will break out, or when you might have to discharge one of the servants.

As her class sees it, the main reason for the underclass may be to terrify the servants, and all the rest of us who live paycheck to paycheck. Better suck it up, Stosh; there’s plenty of other guys here that want your job, which they may give to Sanjay in Mumbai next year anyway.

But thanks to the hornet’s nest of Katrina flooding out New Orleans, the rest of us have been treated to the rediscovery of our own invisible poor.

During the past two weeks, there have been many charges that the Bush administration has been cold and insensitive; that, as rapper Kanye West said, “Bush doesn’t care about black people,” or the poor.

Well, of course George Bush doesn’t care; Dick Cheney, our vice president on loan from Halliburton, doesn’t even pretend to care.

When Old Snarly was finally reanimated and emerged from the usual undisclosed location, he promptly went, not to the smelly toxic hell of New Orleans, but to the damaged beachfront homes of the swells in Mississippi.

Yet that’s not what’s important.

What matters is that we don’t care either.

We don’t. Ever notice how our expressways, especially the Lodge, are sunken so that you can drive through Detroit without having to see the neighborhoods, or much of how the poor live? We do not want to be reminded that they are there.

And the media, which once sought to be the nation’s conscience and these days is too often content to be our id, has helped us to forget.

In many ways, that’s a bigger and more important story than the devastation of the hurricane. Government statistics showed 36 million poor in America two years ago, about as many as the entire population of California, our largest state. That figure is almost certainly larger now.

There were many more who are just a lost job away from joining them. Last year, there were 46 million Americans without any health insurance at all. That means that even those among them not officially poor are just one serious illness away from total economic ruin.

This is the situation, not in Bangladesh, comrades, but in the United States of America. Byron Calame, the public editor, or official critic, of The New York Times, wrote by far the most telling observation:

“Given the dimensions of poverty in New Orleans ... the Times’s news coverage of these problems over the past decade falls far short of what its readers have the right to expect in a national newspaper.”

Calame’s column, which appeared in last Sunday’s Times, did note that sporadic articles had touched on the situation, including one that “noted that more residents of New Orleans lived in poverty than in any other large American city,” any other, that is, except one.

That would be, naturally, Detroit.

We weren’t always like this as a people. Back in the early 1960s, Michael Harrington wrote a book called The Other America: Poverty in the United States that exposed the vast extent of our underclass.

President Kennedy read it, and official Washington was so moved that it helped lead to the War on Poverty. Sadly, that effort was marred by some mistakes, bad publicity and was hurt by the Vietnam War.

Today, the conventional wisdom from people who don’t know anything is that this proves you can’t do anything about the poor. So nobody tries, and we lucky ones party hearty and hope the oil and the money we’re borrowing from the Chinese lasts as long as we do.

Today, most politicians are more willing to launch a war than try to help desperately poor Americans. Laissez le bon temps roulez, is how they put it in New Orleans. Oops. Pas de bon temps there any more.

Wouldn’t it be hilarious, by the way, if Marxism turned out to be correct after all, if the world’s workers someday did rise up against people like the Bushes, who persist in acting just like imperialist pigs in Soviet propaganda? Things seldom work that neatly, or with such poetic justice. But regardless of ideology, it’s pretty clear that George W. Bush’s role in history clearly will be to make every other president we’ve had look stunningly good.

Three Cheers for Warren Evans: Deep in its national coverage of the mess, The New York Times noted that Wayne County Sheriff Warren Evans led a convoy of trucks and 33 deputies to Louisiana and brought food, water and medical supplies to the stricken people.

Then they conducted search and rescue missions. That move apparently was frowned on by our courageous Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who the Times said had pleaded with everyone “to wait for formal requests” for help.

“I could look at CNN and see people dying, and I couldn’t in good conscience wait,” the sheriff said. Now that doesn’t mean we should be too critical of Jenny, who has a hard time with making decisions.

One can’t be too hasty about things like saving lives, and she probably didn’t have a poll to guide her on how this might affect her re-election.

Advertisement For Myself: Beginning Monday, Sept. 19, I will be hosting a daily call-in talk show from 1 to 2 p.m. on Michigan Radio (WUOM), which is at 91.7 on the FM dial. The idea is to have an intelligent program that takes a fresh look at issues, gets important guests to respond to comments and questions, and occasionally has a little fun.

Despite all those lofty goals, they asked me to anchor it. If you normally spend that hour flirting at Jumbo’s, not to worry; the show will be available on the Web site, and is also being podcast, which has something to do, I think, with a Robert Heinlein novel I once read. In any case, I’d be honored if you would listen, and perhaps call in and occasionally set me straight.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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