As we spend our days walking around campus or trekking through nicely-kept neighborhoods in town, it is sometimes easy to forget that not everyone in America is living in such conditions. Indeed, here in the world's wealthiest nation, poverty often seems to be an issue swept under the rug.
With the recent images from a hurricane-ravaged New Orleans on television screens every evening, poverty in America is becoming a little more visible to most of us.
"The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina exposed glaring truths about poverty in America," noted the National Center for Children in Poverty (an organization based out of Columbia University) in a recent report.
While it is certainly imperative that we recognize the faces of the poor affected by this tragedy, as the Center reminds us, poverty "and material hardship are not just problems experienced by the states in Katrina's path – they are problems that plague Americans around the country."
It is difficult to imagine that America, the richest nation in the world, could also have such a deep issue of poverty running through its communities. Indeed, it is easier to point to the remarkable wealth that can often be seen in the country, ignoring that this divide between rich and poor is becoming greater and more cavernous every day.
A growing problem, the U.S. Census bureau reports, in 2004, 12.8 percent of all persons in America were living in poverty. "Poverty has risen in each of the last four years," the Census report contends.
As we have seen in the footage of the aftermath of the hurricanes, the faces associated with poverty in the affected areas are often black. Indeed, data indicates poverty is still influenced by deeply entrenched and, in many cases, historically rooted racial, ethnic and gender discrimination.
As the Census Bureau found, "The poverty rate for all persons masks considerable variation between racial/ethnic subgroups. Poverty rates for blacks and Hispanics greatly exceed the national average." The census found poverty rates were at 24.7 percent for African Americans and 21.9 percent for Hispanics, compared to the 8.6 percent of whites said to be in poverty in 2004.
Such staggering disparities along racial and ethnic lines can be seen as an effect of long-term racism and segregable policies that continue to this day.
Often pushed into low-paying jobs due to racial discrimination or shuffled off into decrepit slums (such as seen in New Orleans), the shift of factories out of the cities and the fact that investments are still not being made to repair the infrastructure or job market for communities in such places has compounded to create such a disparate poverty rate for different racial and ethnic groups.
Such class divides along racial lines became clearly apparent in places such as New Orleans, where, as Christopher Farrell of Business Week reports, only 15 percent of white people did not have a car in which to leave the city, versus the 35 percent of black households who did not have a vehicle to assist in evacuation.
Immigrants and women-headed households face barriers as well, due to many of the same discriminatory factors. Indeed, barriers to access to safety nets and support from government and community sources is an important factor that contributes to the poverty rates amongst all these various racial, ethnic, and gender groups and are problems that must be tackled when addressing poverty.
It is interesting to note that in many places, efforts are seemingly made to keep such racial, gendered and other divisive poverty lines out of view. In places such as Los Angeles, city blocks have been restructured so patrons of expensive shopping areas (who more often than not are white and affluent) do not have to even encounter those in poverty – they are offered walkways instead that segregate them and give the illusion of a poverty-free zone.
With such infrastructure being built to provide strategic ignorance of poverty, it is no surprise that many "Americans seem shocked by the existence of such concentrated poverty and social neglect in their own country," as Matt Wells contends in a BBC article.
While the aftermath of the hurricanes has made poverty more visible in areas such as Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi, we should recognize this issue is not confined solely to those areas. While it is easy to build pathways in cities that might keep us from seeing such poverty, as Justin Davidson of Newsday contends, "a healthy city cannot be a segmented, segregated place where the rich navigate around the poor but never see them," and neither can our nation continue to do so. Poverty is present throughout the nation, and is not something we should ever let fade from our view.
Meg Burd is a graduate anthropology student. Her column runs every Thursday.