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Poverty Tour Highlights Plight of
the Poor

St. Sabina Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side is one of the city’s most beautiful, with soaring domes paneled in rich mahogany, beautiful leaded stained glass windows and a mural of a black Christ in God’s hands behind the altar. It’s also one of the city’s most socially conscious congregations, spreading its help throughout its Auburn-Gresham neighborhood with its youth center, The ARK; its Catholic Charities Social Services Center; its Employment Resource Center; its education and community development outreach, Beloved Community; and its 80-unit senior housing community, Elders Village.

But its priest, longtime civil rights and anti-poverty activist Rev. Dr. Michael Pfleger, is concerned about the neighborhood. As the economic miseries of the last three years have continued and people stay unemployed, enrollment in the local parochial school has fallen nearly 40%. He’s also concerned about the country. “In this tight economic squeeze, the country is saying, ‘Some are going to be left behind.’ Poor people are feeling like they’re disposable. We can’t let that happen,” he said.

So it’s not surprising that when PBS broadcaster Tavis Smiley and Princeton professor Cornell West asked if they could hold the first of three town meetings at St. Sabina’s during their week-long, 11-state Poverty Tour, Rev. Pflegler was happy to help. On Sunday, Aug. 7, the church was packed, as Smiley and Cornell explained what they wanted their tour to accomplish.

“We are trying to raise the level of consciousness with the national media and with the people about this issue of poverty,” Smiley said. “Somebody has to tell the truth about poverty in America. Unfortunately, the poor have no powerful lobby, no political clout, and no good cards in a deck already stacked against them. We’re turning a blind eye to the growing chasm between the have- gots and the have- nots.”

The gap between the rich and poor is the widest it’s been since the data first was published 25 years ago, according to a new report issued by the Pew Charitable Trust on July 27. And, while many low-income American families have seen their net worth fall since the recession began in December 2007, the fall has been much more precipitous among blacks and Hispanics, whose communities historically have less savings, less inherited wealth and shallower asset pools than whites.

The Pew research found that the 2006 bursting of the housing bubble and the recession that followed reduced inflation-adjusted median wealth by 66% among Hispanic households and 53% among black households. For whites, it fell 16%.

The unemployment data is equally telling. In the U.S. today, the average unemployment rate has been floating around nine percent for 2011. That’s bad enough. But when you look at latest data (June 2011) by race, it’s worse:

  • Among whites age 20+, 8.1 percent were unemployed overall; 7.9 percent of white men, and 7 percent of white women.
  • Among Hispanic/Latinos, 11.3 percent were unemployed; 9.2 percent of Hispanic men, and 11.3 percent of Hispanic women.
  • Among African Americans, 15.9 percent were unemployed; 17 percent of black men, and 13.4 percent of black women.

AARP Foundation, along with NEA and Feeding America, helped sponsor the Poverty Tour. The tour wound up August 12 in Memphis, where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated April 4, 1968 during his own Poor People’s Campaign.

“Today, when the gap between rich and poor is at record levels in the U.S., it is time to hear from those among us who have been bearing the brunt of the economic slowdown, from those whose lives have not yet begun to recover from the worst recession in 80 years. It is time to listen,” said Jo Ann Jenkins, the Foundation’s president.

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