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Meek in the Land of the Plutocrats

Bob Herbert

The youngsters filed into the large conference room at the Community Service Society in Manhattan. Each picked up a slice of pizza and a can of soda from a small table that had been set up along one wall, then took a seat at the large table in the center of the room. They were from a public school in the Bronx, about 20 of them, 13 and 14 years old, and they’d agreed to talk to me about their lives.

One of the girls, noticing the bright sunlight streaming through the tall windows of the venerable office building, said, “I like it down here in Manhattan. I’d like to live here someday.”

And then they began talking, raising their hands politely when they wanted to be heard. As they spoke, there was an undercurrent of emotion that was disturbing. So I asked if they were generally happy with their lives. Only five raised their hands. When I asked the others why they were unhappy, they said because their neighborhood was not safe, because one or both of their parents had died, because there was no father in many of their lives, because their families were poor.

Several began to cry. One girl said she’d been raped when she was three years old. She looked down at the table and murmured, “I never feel safe.” Another said, “I saw someone on my block get shot. After that I didn’t want to go outside. When I go to school I always look at that spot where he was laying on the ground. It hurts to think about it.”

The kids spoke of drug dealers and gang members and people they had known who’d been shot and killed. Several of the youngsters, boys and girls, said they never wanted to get married because they saw domestic life as never-ending strife and grief. They spoke of 16-year-olds who were parents and adults without jobs and parties ruined by shootouts, with people running for cover as if they were in the Wild West.

“I don’t like my life,” said one girl. Another said she felt there was no purpose to her existence. One child who was weeping said she didn’t want to say why. “It’s too personal,” she whispered. “I can’t talk about it.”

We’ve failed these youngsters in so many ways. Too often their own parents have failed them, and the politicians at every level of government, and the general public, which is monstrously indifferent to the plight of the poor. There was nothing unusual about that group of youngsters from the Bronx. You’ll hear the same stories of grief and violence and deprivation on the South Side of Chicago, in South Los Angeles, in East St. Louis and Atlanta and Philadelphia and Newark. But the movers and shakers in media and government would rather swallow strychnine than confront this catastrophe head-on.

You won’t hear about it in the presidential race. Barack Obama can barely bring himself to say the word "poor." And Mitt Romney was famously dismissive about even the deepest concentrations of poverty. “I’m not concerned about the very poor,” he said. “We have a safety net there. If it needs a repair, I’ll fix it.” He later described his comment as a “misstatement.”

Fifty million Americans are poor and another 50 million have been characterized as “near poor,” which means they can feel the awful flames of poverty licking at their heels. That’s almost a third of the entire U.S. population. You’d think, in that context, it would be disconcerting to see the president yukking it up at the White House correspondents dinner with the likes of Lindsay Lohan, Kim Kardashian, Kate Hudson and George Clooney in the audience, and later raking in the dough at a $40,000-a-plate fundraiser at Clooney’s home in Los Angeles.

But that’s standard procedure in a country that has given up on its great promise of upward mobility and widely-shared prosperity. The Obama and Romney camps are planning to spend a billion dollars each, a truly obscene amount, in their fight for the presidency of a nation that is now unabashedly of, by, and for the rich.

Poor kids don’t stand a chance in this land of the plutocrats.