Friday, February 4, 2011

The Problem of the Color Line and the Poverty Line

Cairo, Egypt

W E B Dubois in his Souls of Black Folk (1903) wrote that the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.  That line remains a problem.  And it intersects and overlaps the poverty line.  The problem of our century is the problem of poverty lines and lines of poverty. The current protest in Egypt is primarily driven by people fed up with the tyranny, greed, and economic and social abuses of resources and wealth and the impact of such vices on the masses relegating them to a life of poverty. The masses have found the voice and agency to speak in unison about their inhumane living conditions.  Here in the U.S. many people white, Mexican, Latina/o, Asian, Native, and black people live at, on, or near the poverty line.  And ethnic minorities live disproportionately at, on, or near the poverty line. Poverty affects people’s ability to have a quality of life and survival and access to quality health care and education.
July, 20, 2010 protest in Raleigh against NC re-segregation

De facto, our school systems are segregated along color and class lines so that the children of persons who live in poverty too often receive an impoverished education.  Recently a judge in Summit County, Akron, Ohio sentenced Kelley Williams-Bolar to ten days in jail for improperly enrolling her two girls in the wealthy white school district of Copley-Fairlawn where she did not  (and could not) reside.  A jury convicted her of two felony counts of tampering with records. The judge decided to make an example of Ms. Williams-Bolar who had no previous record.  She is a single mother who was going to college and working as a teaching assistant at Buchtel High School. Social networks like Facebook and major television networks and shows like the Today Show picked up the story and interviewed Ms. Williams-Bolar from her jail cell. Within a few hours had garnered over 50,000 signatures petitioning  Ohio’s governor to pardon Ms. Williams-Bolar. As of this writing over 80,000 have signed that petition. Ms. Williams-Bolar was released from jail early after serving one day of her sentence.
The school districting lines can be as systematic and intentional as they are arbitrary. They are intentional in overwhelmingly keeping poor and minorities out of certain districts telling them where they cannot attend school. But they are arbitrary in determining which schools poor and minority children can attend.  We grew up in the Rich Street projects in Columbus, Ohio, which was on the wrong side of the railroad tracks (on the other side was downtown Columbus). We had no choice concerning what schools we could attend. A narrow two-way, two-lane street of about three blocks long ran through the middle of the projects –Cherry Drive, if I remember correctly. Children who lived on one side of Cherry Drive attended one elementary school  and children on the other side of Cherry Drive attended another school. The overwhelming majority of children in the projects where we lived were black.  This arbitrary division ensured that too many black children did not attended either one of the elementary schools.
Recently Governor Rich Perry encouraged a group of conservative businesspersons at a Chamber of Commerce meeting in Houston to pull their children out of public schools.  He stated, “Now I know most of you present here have already enrolled your children in some of our state's finest private schools. But I want to make private schools more accessible to Republican Christian families that cannot afford to pay high tuition and for those who cannot home school their children. [We know the overwhelmingly majority of Republicans are white.] In a city like Houston private school tuition can cost between $10,000 to $25,000 per year per child.” (Emphasis and bracketed info supplied) (Source:, Jan. 28, 2011). White flight is nothing new and black middle class flight is on the rise.  The blatant abandonment of poor children to failing public school systems amid budget shortfalls is nothing new, but neither is the phenomenon of poor parents defying the district lines to send their children to better schools.
Poor people of all races are expected to conform to the arbitrary and systemic school districting lines as well as to the poverty line if they are to expect government help and/or protection. (And that protection is generally meant to keep them within or close to those lines and not help them move into the Promised Land.) On Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011 the Washington Post online published a story by Laurence Changy and Geoffrey Gertz entitled “Poverty’s Success Story.”  Changy and Gertz argue that the World Banks’ (WB) global poverty figures that determine how many people live on less than $1.25 a day are out of date. Based on that figure, according to Changy and Gertz, the WB has stated that “1.37 billion people around the world are poor, including 456 million in India and 208 million in China.” Changy and Gertz point to a new Brookings Institution Report Poverty in Numbers: The Changing State of Global Poverty from 2005 to 2015" as proof that the WB's official “less than $1.25-a-day” figures are no longer relevant. They claim that “the global poverty landscape has changed with the emergence of developing countries”; that  “between 2005 and 2010, nearly half a billion people escaped extreme hardship, as the total number of the world's poor fell to 878 million people. Never before in history have so many people been lifted out of poverty in such a short period.” (Emphasis supplied). I would like to know how Changy and Gertz define “extreme hardship” and by what measure have they determined that millions of people have been “lifted out of poverty”?  How are they defining poverty?  Is the measure still based on those who live on less than $1.25 per day as if living on $1.26 or even $1.50 per day should not be characterized as extreme poverty?  People who have no idea what it means to live in real poverty normally decide where to draw the poverty line.  People who seem to equate a penny or even a few dollars with a thousand dollars or more determine the poverty line.  They treat people living in poverty like points in the stock market.  To live in the United States and to declare that poverty is declining around the world is callous and out of touch with real people at best, and at worst it is an unconscionable and cruel attempt to sweep the poor under the proverbial rug. Changy and Gertz are more in touch with figures than they are with where and how people in their own country live.  Are people like these authors not aware that the homeless population in cities like Detroit has almost doubled and the available places for the newly homeless (never mind the chronically homeless) is shrinking.  Have they heard about the food lines that have at least tripled?  It is in the best interest of some people to act as if the poor among us are disappearing. But this etcha sketch approach to describing poverty is not in the interest of people who live in poverty. 
The 2009 poverty threshold for a person under 65 with no children is $11,161 per year.  So the person who makes a dollar more is not considered as living in poverty. A two-parent household with one child has a poverty threshold of $14,787. And if they increase their income by a few dollars, they are no longer considered to be impoverished. These statistics are systemic and yet arbitrary.  It seems to me more humane and just to focus on whether or not people’s basic human needs are being met.  And at the same time we must determine that things like quality education, health care, healthy food, safe and clean living conditions constitute basic human needs.  Love justice and equality for all.


Anonymous said...

As you eloquently show, human beings cannot be reduced to being "lined off" or becoming mere numbers. These all give rise to a dream deferred that eventually cannot be deferred any longer.

WomanistNTProf said...

Yes, Naomi, dreams deferred, explode, sooner or later.