The invisible poor appear

Those who have not yet felt the "permanent boom" of the '90s are starting to emerge on the national radar, just as the economy shows signs of slowing down.


Arianna Huffington
April 4, 2000 3:00PM (UTC)

At the same time that Fed Chairman Alan
Greenspan is doing his level best to
keep the bullet-train economy on track,
increasing numbers of major news stories
are appearing on the plight of the poor.
Until recently, the poor were rendered
all but invisible by the "permanent
boom" of the '90s. But their stock has
risen at the same time there are signs
that the economy might be about to dip.

In raising interest rates again and
again, Greenspan has been warning "of
the risks that are still lurking." With
falling household and business savings,
skyrocketing personal debt, a record
trade deficit and a staggering $250
billion borrowed on margin to play
the market, there are growing indicators
that even this best of all booms will
not, after all, last forever.

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It's against this backdrop that the poor
are making a comeback in the mainstream
media. This week on PBS, Bill Moyers put
a human face on the numbers in a
two-and-a-half-hour documentary,
"Surviving the Good Times." As Jackie
Stanley, the matriarch of one of the
blue-collar families in the film, put
it: "It's a good economy, but it's just
not (coming to) our house."

She's not alone. The bull, as we're
learning, has had a very selective
itinerary. U.S. News & World Report ran
a cover story last month titled "The
Rich Get Richer." This week, National
Public Radio did a three-part series on
the two faces of Seattle -- the city
with nine billionaires, 10,000
millionaires and crumbling public
schools. "My students, they've been left
out of this wonderful period of
prosperity," said Charles Hasse, a
fourth-grade teacher reduced to moving
desks around to protect his students
from falling ceiling tiles. "I think
we've squandered an opportunity, really,
to build for the future."

And there's been a dramatic shift in the
way major newspapers have been covering
the homeless. There were, for example,
no front-page stories on homelessness in
the New York Times in all of 1998. But
since November, the paper has run at
least a dozen Page One stories on the
subject, including a recent cover story
in its Sunday magazine, "The Invisible
Poor." Quoted in it was Michael Sandel,
a professor of government at Harvard:
"Today's accumulation of enormous wealth
is unparalleled since the last Gilded
Age, but the Gilded Age of a century ago
brought in its wake a wave of
progressive reform and public investment
-- in parks, libraries, schools and
municipal projects. Today's gilded age,
by contrast, hasn't generated any
comparable resolve to ease the effects
of inequality by strengthening public
institutions."

There has also been a spate of recent
stories about how the high-tech Gold
Rush has turned parts of California into
what one poverty-fighting activist
termed "a Dickensian universe" divided
between the super rich and the
desperately needy.

In San Francisco, the dot.com-driven economy is
booming -- but so are evictions, with a
300 percent rise in tenants getting the
boot since 1995. In the shadow of the
city's cash-rich Multi-Media Gulch --
dubbed the center of geek civilization
-- a throng of homeless crowds the
streets and alleys of the fashionable
SoMa district. A minimum-wage worker
here would have to put in 150 hours a
week to make rent on an average
two-bedroom apartment. Maybe if they
called themselves the "iPoor" or
incorporated as "Poor.com" they'd get to
share a little bit of the wealth.

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In Santa Clara County, which encompasses
a large portion of Silicon Valley, 34
percent of the area's homeless have
full-time jobs but are unable to afford
the area's sky-high rents and soaring
home prices -- which are more than
double the national average. Some have
resorted to paying $3 for an all-day
pass, so they can spend the night taking
a series of two-hour naps on a bus that
is now known as "the rolling hotel."
Others among the local working poor have
to live in horrendous conditions, such
as 26 men sharing a house -- each paying
$400 a month.

The anecdotal evidence of an alarming
decline in affordable housing was
confirmed this week in a new report
issued by the Department of Housing and
Urban Development showing a record
number of working-poor families living
in substandard conditions or having to
devote more than half their income to
housing.

"Our clients, who have always been on
the bottom tier, now can't even compete
for the miserable housing they've had,"
housing advocate Christine Minnehan told
the Los Angeles Times. "People in San
Jose are even renting their living-room
floors. People don't live like that
unless they have no choice."

Could this sudden explosion of stories
on the invisible poor be, as the first
swallows are to spring, a harbinger of
an economic downturn that we refuse to
even contemplate? Are the mainstream
media tapping into an inchoate fear
among the multitude of debt-laden,
savings-strapped, middle-class Americans
that "there but for the grace of God and
tech stocks go I?"

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Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

MORE FROM Arianna Huffington

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