“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” –Archbishop Dom Helder Camara
By Robert Mann
The only thing more scandalous than Louisiana’s pervasive poverty is our casual acceptance of it. Maybe “acceptance” is the wrong word. That would imply that we see it, recognize it and have consciously decided to live with it.
I wonder if Louisiana’s poverty is like those commercials that appeal for money to help starving children in Africa or emaciated shelter dogs. I can never watch their shocking images for long. They make me too uncomfortable and arouse shame for my inaction and indifference.
It’s often easier to change the channel than contemplate the kind of world I am willing to abide. It’s also easier to shun the places where poverty is pervasive by telling myself I’m wise to avoid neighborhoods where I might become a crime victim.
If only it were so easy. No matter where we live or what we do, almost every one of us is a victim of poverty. We’re poor in money – or we’re poor in spirit.
By “poor in spirit,” I mean that our society lacks the courage or fortitude to talk honestly about poverty. Such debates usually devolve into questions about money, taxes, equality and, ultimately, race. Discussions about those topics – at least when the poor are involved – are quickly hijacked by those who claim we are already spending too much on the poor. “Why do you want to raise my taxes to give money to people who refuse to work to feed themselves and their families?” the argument usually goes.
Never mind that many of our state’s poor are working. Some of them have two and three jobs. Never mind that the working poor pay state and local taxes like the rest of us – only Louisiana taxes them at twice the rate of the rich. Never mind that they often have children who cannot work and are not responsible for their parents’ dire financial circumstances.
Many of our leaders will not discuss poverty because they know they will be labeled “tax-and-spend” liberals. So they litter their speeches with meaningless phrases about “creating good-paying jobs” and a “strong business climate.” Those are crumbs to the poor but clear dog whistles to the business community and their wealthy backers that they’ll fight to keep taxes low and corporate welfare high.
In the weeks since I asked why our candidates for governor aren’t debating poverty, several readers posed variations of these questions: “But what, really, can we accomplish? I mean, there’s not a lot we can do about poverty, right?”
Wrong. There is much we can do. It’s not just a matter of resources; it’s also a question of will.
For starters, the candidates – for governor on down – could simply talk to the working poor about their lives. Maybe they wouldn’t be so quick to vilify or dismiss a hardworking single mom with three kids and two jobs after they visited her home and heard her story.
At the very least, we could reform cruel laws that overtax the poor. But there’s more, much more, we can do.
Recently, the United Way of Southeast Louisiana shared with me a simple questionnaire it will distribute this fall to legislative candidates in its seven-parish region of southeast Louisiana. United Way officials have already sent it to the candidates for governor.
Continue reading (and see the entire questionnaire) on NOLA.com at this link.