Those the Campaign Left Behind
by Jerome F. Winzig
This year's presidential campaign mostly ignored those left behind by the general prosperity of the 1990s. None of the main messages of the four leading candidates -- Bush, Gore, Nader, and Buchanan -- focused on those who have been unable to participate in our economy's recent growth. But the United States has a growing underclass that threatens our social fabric and must be addressed by the next president.
Most of this presidential campaign was targeted at the American middle class. Gore promised tax cuts targeted at the middle class. Bush called for across-the-board tax cuts that would benefit the entire middle class. Nader emphasized environmental concerns. Buchanan decried globalization and immigration.
These are, of course, profoundly important issues. But the candidates did not talk about how these issues affect people who are profoundly disconnected with mainstream America. The personal stories the candidates were fond of did not talk about the Chicago children profiled in Alex Kotlowitz' 1991 book, "There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America." The candidates' stories did not talk about the people ignored by the country, like the Bronx children described in Jonathan Kozol's 1995 book, "Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation."
There are two important reasons for this:
First, the problems of the underclass are largely out of sight. Several long-standing developments help conceal the underclass from most of us. As people have moved into urban areas, the rural poor have been left behind unseen. As freeways have expanded, suburbs have extended their reach, and the number of automobiles has increased, an increasing number of Americans never rub elbows with those who are truly poor.
This is true even of our own city neighborhood. We can easily do all of our shopping in nearby suburbs. We can get to movie theaters, restaurants, and other entertainment without passing through poor neighborhoods. We can take express buses that bring us to work downtown via the freeway.
Not many people in our comfortable, middle-class neighborhood take the local Chicago Avenue bus that runs through our neighborhood anymore. If they did, on many occasions they'd find themselves on a bus where there are just a few white passengers and many of the passengers are not middle class.
Second, there are no easy answers for those left out of mainstream America today. Transforming the underclass, solving homelessness, addressing drug addiction, helping dysfunctional families, and correcting gang violence are profoundly difficult challenges. Each end of the political spectrum thinks they alone have the right solution, but they are mistaken.
Money alone will not solve the problem. Welfare, public housing, and food stamps have helped some, but they not eliminated poverty. The great anti-poverty programs of Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" benefited some poor people, but on the whole were not very successful. Head Start and other early childhood and family education programs have not solved the problems of child abuse or of kids failing in school.
Free enterprise and a booming economy alone will not solve the problem. America's extended boom cycle has benefited the middle class. Combined with welfare reform, it has drawn many people back into the working economy, and many companies are now paying entry-level employees significantly higher wages. But this boom doesn't quite reach those with no education and no work history. It doesn't quite bring in those caught up in drug addition. It doesn't quite help those who are poor and afflicted with AIDS, tuberculosis, asthma, diabetes, or other debilitating diseases.
We need an approach that crosses party lines and extends beyond the government. To be uplifted, people who are downtrodden need at least three things: a Democrat's helping hand, a Republican's free market opportunities, and a spiritual reason to believe in themselves and their worth as children of God.
This requires sound political convictions, deeply-held moral values, the humility to recognize none of us has all the answers, and an openness to solutions offered by those with whom we disagree. The new president will need all three.