- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 15, 2005

Enough of the blame game. Enough of the demands.

“Now is the time to get some real work done,” says an anti-poverty advocate for the poor and “underprivileged.”

Yesterday, I was talking to Derrick Span, national president of the Community Action Partnership, about what we suspect will be America’s short-lived attention to the plight of the suddenly visible poor in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The District-based nongovernmental agency focuses on eradicating the growing poverty rate in the richest nation on Earth.

At the same time, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) was holding a press conference at which its members pledged to change the predictable agenda of their annual conference to concentrate on Hurricane Katrina victims who are mostly poor, mostly black, mostly female, and elderly.

The CBC also issued a bulleted eight-point list of demands it intends to present to President Bush as this government prepares to spend billions in the Gulf Coast recovery efforts.

But No. 8 on the list simply demands: “Develop comprehensive strategy to address poverty crisis in America.”

The CBC must do better. They don’t have to wait for Mr. Bush to “develop a comprehensive strategy to address poverty.” Every one of the CBC members could author an anti-poverty bill, seek partisan support for it, and lobby community and church groups nationwide to win its passage and the president’s signature, as Mr. Span suggests. “That would be much more powerful,” he said.

As the CBC prepares to throw its annual funfest under the guise of its “legislative weekend” at the Washington Convention Center beginning Wednesday, it cannot simply host verbose “brain trusts,” passionate prayer breakfasts, frilly fashion shows or preaching-to-the-choir town hall meetings. For sure, party time is over.

More importantly, caucus members cannot make demands on others that they are not prepared to carry out themselves, especially when it comes to hurricane victims.

For the four years he has been at the helm of Community Action Partnerships, Mr. Span has been calling for a national forum to end poverty and for revitalized anti-poverty legislation in the face of increasing poverty in this rich nation. Wonder whether anyone will listen now?

“To issue a Santa Claus wish list is ridiculous; a bill proposing policy changes is what’s needed,” he said. The CBC “should be introducing legislation.”

Any anti-poverty bill first must include increased funding for the Community Service Block Grants, which have been the lifeblood of organizations such as Mr. Span’s that have a network of local chapters that work hands-on with poor people in distressed communities. Congress was slated to slash millions out of the program before Katrina hit.

The block grants were “the No. 1 block grant aimed at fighting poverty,” Mr. Span said. The CBC needs to concentrate on saving those funds as well as those in the Community Reinvestment Act as part of an anti-poverty package. That legislation, he said, also should require a raise in the minimum wage and a tax-abatement program to induce business to come to poor neighborhoods. Of course, the lack of affordable housing, health care, child care and access to public transportation are the other challenges with which the poor are saddled.

Hurricane Katrina also has demonstrated that “there must be an absolute mandate for evacuation plans for low-income communities,” he said.

Mr. Span predicts that the CBC has about two weeks to act because there are signs that “this opportunity [to help the poor] is going to pass.”

He explained that some less-compassionate Americans have started to “blame the victim” for their circumstances. People died unnecessarily. Babbling, bungling bureaucrats and pontificating politicians of every hue and stripe and at every level of government should share in the bitter blame pie.

“What should have been a disaster relief became a relief disaster,” Mr. Span said.

To his credit, at least Mr. Bush took “full responsibility” for this shameful relief disaster in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Now, if someone would take full responsibility for preventing such disasters by once again attacking poverty of “the underprivileged,” who the president’s mother thinks are better off now that they have been corralled in public pens.

The poor actually could be better off if elected folks, like the CBC, like the president, like the citizens and the churches, act now.

“The greatest apology that could be offered would be to use their death and suffering to right the wrong by writing a new anti-poverty bill; anything short of that is itself a moral disaster,” Mr. Span said.

Poverty is not a pretty picture, but you’d have to be blind or insensitive not to notice it throughout urban and rural America until now.

A week before Katrina hit, the U.S. Census Bureau released figures that showed that an additional 1 million people slipped below the poverty line. That’s the third year in a row that more American families fell into economic hardship during a purported economic recovery.

For a family of three, that means they earned less than $14,000. Earned is the operative word here. They aren’t dependent on government; they are the invisible working poor who must care for their families on less than $5 an hour.

It is unthinkable that we live in a country that pretends that the poor alone are solely responsible for their plight when the political and economic deck is stacked against them.

Lest anyone forget, most folks survived Hurricane Katrina. It was in the result of poor planning, poor response and benign and overt neglect on the part of publicly paid government servants and representatives that a vulnerable group of citizens of this country perished or were thrown in a pit and left to die.

Now what to do beside finger-pointing as poor folks try to survive on even less for the foreseeable future? Help them rise out of poverty.

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