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The Other America Is Still With Us

Dotty Lynch is the Senior Political Editor for CBS News. E-mail your questions and comments to Political Points

You can't blame Barbara Bush for wanting to help put the best face on her son's predicament. But not since former Attorney General Ed Meese suggested that people go to soup kitchens on holidays because the food is free and they don't want to pay for it has a remark about the poor caused such a jolt.

While touring the Astrodome in Houston with her husband and President Clinton, she told NPR that people evacuated to Texas were on the way up. "What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.''

A real win-win, huh?

But Mrs. Bush isn't the only one to have a tin ear about the poor. For the past week, as the misery of thousands of people was front and center on TV, 24/7, the constant refrain was, "This doesn't look like America; it looks like the third world." But, in fact, what the hurricane did was to make the invisible poor visible and touch the American consciousness in a way that was gut-wrenching and could not be ignored.

The poor have been out of fashion in American politics and media for the past few years. As Republicans feasted on the boom time of the 1980s, Democrats decided that they were losing elections because the middle class thought they had been abandoned. So Democrats ditched their New Deal rhetoric and replaced it with the language of middle-class squeeze. Issues like infant nutrition and hunger were pushed aside for reforming welfare and community policing.

But one mainstream Democratic politician who has veered from that course is former presidential candidate and Senator John Edwards. Since the election, Edwards has gone back to North Carolina where he founded the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina.

Edwards' central campaign speech in 2004 was about the "Two Americas" – the divide between the wealthy and the poor. Last week, he sent out an e-mail to supporters zeroing in on income disparity in New Orleans, an "even harsher example of the two Americas… Twenty-three percent of the population in New Orleans lives in poverty. Those are chilling numbers. Because of Katrina, we have now seen many of the faces behind those numbers. This is an ugly and horrifying wake-up call to America."

The fact that evacuation plans virtually ignored the plight of those who lacked transportation and some disposable income is appalling. Edwards is now working on some proposals to deal with the unique situation of the poor during disasters, as well as wide-scale issues of poverty in America.

The Census Bureau released new poverty statistics last week which showed that there are now 37 million Americans living in poverty; up 1.1 million since 2003. During the early 1960s, President John F Kennedy read Michael Harrington's "The Other America," which described America's invisible poor and described a culture of poverty. The book had a huge impact on Kennedy and the country and formed the basis of Kennedy's and then Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty, using the resources of the federal government to tackle the problem. But clearly that war was not won.

The blame game over hurricane relief has started to disintegrate into partisan wrangling and bureaucratic solutions. But the overarching fact of the past week is that the poor are so much with us. Is there any hope that the lasting the impact of Katrina will be a renewed commitment to reducing poverty? Not just at times of natural disaster but for all times.

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