I was sitting in Philadelphia’s market east train station late one night, bored and tired, I had just missed my train home, and I was waiting anxiously (an hour) for the next one. As I scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed, trying to drown out the mindless chatter of the people around me with my iPod, two cops strolled in the station, and they immediately zeroed in on two people: a white homeless man curled up asleep on a back bench in a corner, and a young black kid who had fallen asleep sitting up. After harassing both for about 10 or 15 minutes, they drove the homeless man out and flustered the kid enough that he was wide awake now, so they left.
Living poor is risky, but many times there is no escape. MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry knows this all too well and last weekend, she went off on a guest on her show. “What is riskier than being poor in America?!” She questioned, and she’s right. What’s riskier than being poor? Middle and upper class America not only have the options, but they have the know how to get where they want to go. Their parents have already run the gauntlet of the system before them. They know how to apply to financial aid, they know where to go (and have the good credit) to get the loans, they know when and how to apply for college, they expertly leverage who they know. But what do we have? We have poor public education that instills values fit for a production line, not the valuable skills that are needed for our new and increasingly difficult job market and economy.
But what are our two candidates for president doing to face this problem? They are doing nothing to address the already burgeoning hopelessness in our children growing up poor. One of the great quotes that was taken from Newt Gingrich earlier this election cycle points out what’s wrong with the Republican party. “Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working, and have nobody around them who works. They have no habit of ‘I do this, and you give me cash,’ unless it’s illegal.” It’s this flippant and ignorant attitude towards the poor that not only drive away voters from the Republican party, but make the GOP the laughing stock of just about everyone. I’d harbor a guess that the last time that Newt Gingrich made his way into a poor neighborhood was when his driver made a wrong turn at night. But it’s not just the Republicans that hold this attitude towards the poor, both major parties do. The Democrats don’t really offer any suggestions, beside a welfare safety net that only gives government dependence and does not encourage independence.
While the Republican party rhetoric emphasizes that education and the free market are some of the best solutions to class mobility, often times they fail to realize that these cannot be the only measures taken. While Democrats tend to stress aid to poor individuals and communities in an effort to raise them out of poverty, they fail to realize that forced aid dispensed by the hands of an inefficient structure will never foster self-determination and communities raising up themselves to independence.
Most have probably seen worse than my earlier example, especially in Philadelphia, a city that has a history of trying to, at best, disenfranchise their poor. Back in August, a woman was heavily fined and told to stop feeding hungry neighborhood children in that area. See the reality is, I’ve seen more damage to the poor by the government than I have by the people. A racist incentive structure that is intent on keeping all people down, regardless of color, has nothing to offer or help us. Instead of waiting for checks that never seem to come and waiting in longer lines for assistance that is never good enough, people can and should band together to promote real, lasting actual change.
Through the market, non-profits, churches, and just people working together voluntarily, we will move forward. If people don’t feel safe and secure in their own property and possessions, they have no incentive to reach for more. When they are not taught how to think but what to think, there is no class mobility. When you see every generation before you fail and sit on the street corner, you have no hope for yourself. You’re content to work your nine to five and to instead get lost in whatever you can on the weekends. You don’t live for tomorrow or even today, you’re just happy to have that moment, to survive. When you live in fear of everything around you, you have no thoughts of what next year or even next month or next week will look like. When people don’t know if they are safe even in their own homes and communities, we all have a problem. That problem is greater than the government, but it isn’t bigger than the people.