- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 26, 2004

As the Republicans and the Democrats duke it out, do you wonder if either well-heeled

presidential candidate has a clue of what it takes to live in America earning minimum wages? It takes more than sinister political rhetoric to alleviate the plight of the poor.

What do two rich men, with inherited transferable wealth, personally know of poverty as they spout shifty statistics for their political gain? I suspect nothing. But they just ought to.

As Gladys Mack, deputy director of the United Planning Organization in the District, points out, “Most of us know someone who is poor today, whether it’s a family member or someone who works for us, and this issue not only touches low-income communities, it touches the entire region and the nation.”

Forty years after President Johnson established the anti-poverty community action programs, the number of people living in poverty is rising. You wouldn’t know it with the million-dollar houses and condos springing up around the region, but a million more people fell into poverty last year.

Yesterday, the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual report that indicates 1.3 million more people are living in poverty while 1.4 million more are uninsured. Those numbers do not include the unaccounted-for masses of struggling, middle-class people living paycheck to paycheck.

Continuing a three-year trend, those census figures are worse for children. An increase of 800,000 children was counted among the impoverished, or 17.6 percent of those in the population younger than 18.

While the Republican National Committee holds its convention in New York next week, the Community Action Partnership holds its annual convention in the District. While thousands will be protesting as close as they can get to Madison Square Garden, hundreds with the partnership and its 1,000-member network of Community Action Agencies, which includes UPO, will gather on the Ellipse for a “No Room For Poverty” rally on Sept. 4.

The nonpartisan, nonpolitical rally seeks to raise awareness about the increasing numbers and the changing face of those living in or on the edge of poverty, and to call for a White House conference next year “to eradicate poverty and strengthen the safety net for all Americans.” Speakers, including low-income representatives Darrell Bonner, Nicholas Jackson and Brenda Myers, will focus on the “pillars” of an anti-poverty agenda, including access to jobs, affordable housing, health care, education and technology.

Derrick Span, national president of the Community Action Partnership, said “poverty is nobody’s fault but everybody’s fight.” The idea that poverty was somehow the fault of the individual is outdated, Mr. Span said, because the census numbers indicate that there is a structural problem behind the levels of poverty in new groups comprising the 110 million poor Americans.

“The new face of poverty is a contemporary face with the working poor and a future face with those who are now living paycheck to paycheck,” he said.

Mr. Span likened the anti-poverty fight to “the new civil rights movement” and “the new abolitionist movement” because poverty keeps people enslaved and “it drives up anxiety.”

Because of the rapid loss of jobs, he suggests more people get involved in this struggle. Even though there were 1 million more counted this year, there may be 1 million more next year, and eventually someone you know or perhaps even you may eventually be counted among that low-income population.

The presidential candidate who steps out and makes a commitment to tackle the issues facing low-income citizens deserves serious consideration.

Mr. Span said the proposed summit is imperative because eliminating poverty “must be taken to the highest level of government” where it will bring together theorists, practitioners, policy-makers and low-income people to develop an anti-poverty agenda with new strategies and solutions.

According to the Associated Press, the Census Bureau definition of poverty is based on size of household. For example, the income threshold is $18,810 for a family of four and $12,015 for a family of two.

To recap, that was 35.9 million people — 12.5 percent of the population — living below the poverty line in 2003 in the richest nation on the planet. At the same time, 45 million people — 15.6 percent of the population — lack health insurance.

Mrs. Mack is hoping that upward of 1,500 in the Washington region will step forward to participate in the “No Room For Poverty” rally because it affects us all.

UPO serves 45,000 people with its programs ranging from Head Start for children to job training and literacy skills for adults and meals and transportation for seniors.

Like UPO, the Arlington Community Action Program, which also is mobilizing volunteers for the rally, is “dedicated to helping people help themselves and each other.”

Mrs. Mack said they can demonstrate countless success stories throughout the UPO programs “but as soon as the pot empties, it refills and overflows.” Just finding one job for one family — that doesn’t have to resort to crime for sustenance, for example — she said “improves the quality of life for everybody.”

What is needed to eradicate poverty, Mrs. Mack and other anti-poverty advocates agree, is “a bigger commitment to make a bigger impact.”

Now, you think they’ll hear that plea to help the plight of the poor out on the well-heeled campaign trail? Or will the candidates feed us more processed political caviar?

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