When the economy catches a cold, the poor suffer pneumonia. When the economy catches pneumonia, as this one has, poor people are reduced to emergency conditions.
Across America, poverty is rising. Food kitchens can't meet demand. Shelters are overcrowded. Lines grow at public clinics and emergency rooms. The homeless crowd around grates and park benches in large cities. Desperation is growing.
The poor, of course, are the last hired and the first fired. Too many can find work only when the economy is at full employment. Too many lose work when the economy grows weaker.
Now, cities and states are facing severe budget crises. States cut back on Medicaid funds. Libraries that provide warmth as well as substance are shuttered. With the stock market suffering deep losses, charities are having trouble raising their budgets, much less raising the funds needed to respond to the current crisis.
For too many young people, jail becomes a comparatively secure environment. We overcrowd our prisons–more than 2 million are in jail, far more per capita than any other industrial nation. These are harsh, arbitrary, ugly environments–and they are meant to be. Yet, prisons provide 21 meals a week. Schools provide five lunches a week for poor children. Prisons provide shelter with heat. Homeless families lack both.
The poor are growing more desperate, but their plight is too often simply ignored. Our politics appeals to the middle class, where most voters are. Our government provides for the wealthy, who have the greatest clout. The Federal Reserve and the Treasury have devoted more than $8 trillion in guarantees, swaps and equity investments to prop up the banks led by the wealthiest people in America.
The administration, after much delay, provided short-term loans to the automakers, worried about what would happen to millions of jobs at stake in the industry. But who speaks for the poor?
When Barack Obama takes office, he will usher in the greatest period of reform in America since Lyndon Johnson in 1965-66. In a few extraordinary months, Johnson pushed through the Voting Rights Act, immigration reform and Medicare, and launched the War on Poverty. That effort was an early casualty of the war in Vietnam, but by the end of Johnson's presidency poverty had been dramatically reduced.
Yet Johnson is seldom invoked as a great president. In part that is because his administration was itself a casualty of the Vietnam War. In part that is because his reforms sparked a reaction, with conservatives running against affirmative action, crime and welfare, profiting from the race-baiting politics of division. By the end of the Reagan era, poverty was no longer fit for political debate. Now politicians in both parties compete to appeal to the middle class and ignore the poor.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s last campaign was the poor people's campaign. He wanted to bring poor people from across the country, across racial and religious divides, to Washington to demand action. He was taken from us in Memphis, helping low-paid sanitation workers to organize, before his plans could be completed.
Now 40 years later, Obama will be inaugurated one day after the holiday celebrating's King's birth and life.
He will come with a mandate to get the economy moving, to put people back to work. And across the country, the weakest and most vulnerable Americans will be hoping that he takes up LBJ's war on poverty, and King's poor people's campaign.