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Saturday, August 23, 2014

America Has Become the Land of Second-Class Citizens

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" ”

--Emma Lazarus

This quote comes from Emma Lazarus' sonnet, "New Colossus," which she wrote for a fundraiser auction to raise money for the pedestal upon which the Statue of Liberty now sits. The poem speaks of the millions of immigrants who came to the United States (many of them through Ellis Island at the port of New York).

In 1903, a bronze tablet that bears the text of "The New Colossus" and commemorates Lazarus was presented by friends of the poet. Until the 1986 renovation, it was mounted inside the pedestal; today it resides in the Statue of Liberty Museum in the base.

This line from "The New Colossus" has become the quote most associated with American liberty. The question is "Do we live up to the heritage of the land of the free and the home of opportunity. No, I am not going to address the pressing issue of immigration although it does directly relate to the question. I wonder if "tired, poor masses" of citizens, many now third and fourth generation Americans, are afforded their equality.

A second-class citizen is a person who is systematically discriminated against within a state or other political jurisdiction, despite their nominal status as a citizen or legal resident there. Not slaves, outlaws or criminals, second-class citizens still have limited legal rights, civil rights and socioeconomic opportunities.

These people are often subject to mistreatment or neglect at the hands of their broadly accepted superiors. Instead of being protected by the law, the law often chooses to disregard them. A system with de facto second-class citizenry is generally regarded as violating human rights.

Second-class citizens are often faced with serious restrictions in the following areas:

* Language
* Religion
* Education
* Freedom of Movement and Association
* Weapons Ownership
* Marriage
* Gender Identity and Expression
* Housing
* Property Ownership

The growing gap between those at the top and the bottom of the socioeconomic scale is evidence that the United States is a land of the very rich and the very poor. I believe we are fast becoming a land full of strapped, poverty-stricken, second-class citizens. This poverty is embedded in the structure of the new American society and maintained by an unequal distribution of political power.

Far back -- fifty years ago -- Michael Harrington, author of The Other America, a work that is partly credited with launching President Johnson's "War on Poverty," showed his audience that even in the post-war boom of the 1950s and ‘60s, poverty was real.

The problem then, Harrington argued, was not so much that poor people were rejected or forgotten. He wrote, "What is much worse, they are not seen." Harrington wrote portrayals of the American underclass of rural Appalachia and the isolated urban slums of inner-cities that brought the "invisible" poor into the light of day.

In 2014, we still have plenty to accomplish concerning equal opportunity and full participation to all people in American society. One fundamental cause of persistent poverty is the unintended silence of millions of impoverished people in political matters. They feel defeated and too readily accept a view of fulfilling a low station. Simply stated, the impoverished lack the means and the disposition to achieve political clout that would likely improve their conditions.

Figures from the U.S. Census Bureau reveal that roughly 50 million Americans -- one in six -- now live below the poverty line. Additionally, one in five American children have fallen below the poverty line; the last time poverty levels were this high, Lyndon Baines Johnson was president.

(Wynton Hall. "Nearly 50 Million Americans in Poverty, Worst Since LBJ." April 3, 2013)

Nearly half of these Americans, 20.5 million people, are living in deep poverty on less than $12,000 per year.

What about jobs? Half of American jobs pay less than $33,000 per year, and a quarter pay poverty-line wages of $22, 000 or less. This translates to a shocking reality -- people in the bottom fifth of the income distribution now command the smallest share of income, 3.3 percent, since the government started tracking income breakdowns in the 1960s.

How about the middle class? Middle-wage jobs lost during the Great Recession are largely being replaced by low-wage jobs (if they are replaced at all) contributing to an 11 percent decline in real income for poor families since 1979.

27 million adults who are unemployed or underemployed and 48 million people in working poor families now rely on some form of public support. And, means-tested government programs excluding Medicaid have remained essentially flat for the past 20 years, at around $1,000 per capita per year.

Americans on food stamps now outnumber the combined populations of 24 U.S. states.
In addition, 14 million Americans now receive disability checks each month.

 (Daniel Weeks. "Poverty vs. Democracy in America." The Atlantic. January 6, 2014)

Several years ago, here is how one writer, a political scientist, described the ability of poor Americans to participate in society:

"The opportunities and choices available to low-income individuals and families are so different from those available to their wealthy and even middle-class counterparts that they might as well be living in another country. 

"You're more likely to get sent to Iraq, more likely to go to jail, more likely to have an unplanned child, more likely to have asthma from breathing polluted air if you're poor. More likely to have to choose between paying for food (none of that organic stuff, either) and medical treatment, less likely to get adequate care if you choose the latter. 

"Pointing out that there are still people in the world who are worse off in an absolute sense does not absolve us of the responsibility to address our own country's need."

(Alyssa Katharine Ritz Bassistoni. "The Reality of Poverty." The Nation. October 22, 2007)

Bassistoni writes that the stigma attached to poverty is justified by the illusion that we live in a meritocracy (A system in which advancement is based on individual ability or achievement). She states, "Segregation is acceptable as long as it's rationalized by socioeconomic status, since that is supposedly determined by a person's choices in life. We don't like to admit that it helps to have been born into the right neighborhood, race, gender, family."

How easy it is for the privileged to dismiss all poor people as dirty addicts, welfare kings and queens, lazy bums, and worthless idiots. And, believe me, many do so to establish a cruel pecking order. So, as these richer folks spread their disgust for "low lifes," they influence others to believe their views. The truth is that if you are born into poverty, you will likely live a poor life yourself as a second-hand citizen.

If America's hope is our children, it's time we improve the life of all of those young people without favor. Why do poor children suffer so much?

* Of course, they are impoverished.

* They suffer from hunger and homelessness.

* They live in homes with absent and incarcerated parents.

* They suffer from violence and substance abuse.

Is it any wonder high-school dropout rates for these children are around 50 percent. College-graduation rates are less than 10 percent for people in poverty, which is five times worse than upper-income youth.

So, without a high-school diploma, poor children are four times more likely than their college-educated peers to be unemployed and 10 to 20 times more likely to end up behind bars.

Then, regardless of high-school completion and criminal status, close to half of all people raised in persistent poverty remain poor at the age of 35, transmitting the same status to their kids, while less than four percent join the upper-middle class. It is a vicious cycle that few poor Americans can escape.

Even the health of those in poverty is affected: Prior to implementation of the Affordable Care Act, around four in 10  Americans in poverty or who lack a high-school diploma also do not have health insurance -- four times the rate among non-poor people -- and one third of all deaths are estimated to result from poverty and low-education.

(Daniel Weeks. "Poverty vs. Democracy in America." The Atlantic. January 6, 2014)

My View of Second-Class Citizens

For so long now, those with favor and privilege in America have contented themselves to build their own families and help raise the standards of living for their own. Period. Most feel they have enough "on their plate" taking care of their siblings And, granted, that, in itself, is a tremendous job and a huge accomplishment.

But, what about our own less fortunate citizens? What about the second-class Americans? We like to think we can give them a public education which will allow them to rise from the ranks of the poor. Yet, with all of the stressors faced by poor families, many of these kids slide, fall, and crash. Then, they are unable to "pick themselves up." They become devastated and distrustful of the system as they eventually realize the cards have been stacked against them from the statrt.

Speaking for myself, the son of a salesman and a working mom, I know without their tremendous support -- emotional, financial, social, and spiritual -- I would have failed to complete two college degrees and secure a profession as a teacher. During my maturation, so many times problems got in the way of my plans, and my parents guided me through those dark days. And, guess what? Thanks to their help and the assistance of so many others who cared, I was able to raise my own family of four children years later.

We all have the obligation not only to acknowledge the enormous problems that continue to plague our society, but also to take actions to change a society that creates, and even happily perpetuates, second-class citizens. America must become once more the nation that provides freedom and equal opportunity to the impoverished.

We can choose to rant and rail at the welfare system, shout at indigents to "Get a job!" and curse the atrocious realities of crime and disease that stem from poverty.

Or ...

We can choose to restore the American Dream by making the end of poverty in the United States our top priority.

I believe we must do the following to help our fellow man:

1. We must insure that the public educational experience provides top-flight employable skills and works to better opportunities for poor children to progress and to enter post-secondary programs. I suggest a 13th year of mandatory secondary education focusing on employment skills for those who do not enter college after their senior year.

2. We must demand employers -- corporations and companies -- provide legitimate full-time work for every American who wants to earn an honest living. Those jobs must include a wage and benefits that will suffice to allow citizens to live a comfortable life with decent housing, healthcare, and advancement opportunities. Above all, we must end this craze of providing only part-time employment for those good workers with greater monetary needs. And, we must lobby to raise wages for service jobs.

3. We must re-establish the "War on Poverty." Instead of accepting the old adage "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer," we need to recognize each hindrance that widens the gap between the haves and the have-nots and realize helping others and including others can raise hopes and standards of living -- all standards of successfully surviving.

4. And, most importantly, we have to preach self-reliance as the optimal condition while designing workable plans for all Americans to actually reach a better state of living. 

Once again, we must instill a caveat that effort and hard work PAY, no matter how menial the job. Once again, we need to concern ourselves with "the huddled masses." And, once again, we must be our brother's keeper by helping him become a viable thread of the fabric of our working communities.

The New Colossus

By Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

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