It is unfortunate that it took an earthquake to put the spotlight back on poverty in Haiti. To be sure, the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that leveled Port-au-Prince would have been devastating under any circumstances. But the people of Haiti had been suffering for years. The difference is that no one cared, because people often become weary hearing about black people suffering.
The hopeless level of poverty in Haiti has been longstanding. And as the oldest black republic in the Western hemisphere, this island nation has had a long time to suffer. Haiti never had a chance to develop a thriving middle class. Exploited and neglected, the country was occupied by the United States. Uncle Sam propped up its corrupt, banana republic dictators, and supported its ruthless death squads. And as recently as 2004, the U.S. apparently participated in a coup that removed Haiti’s democratically-elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, from power. A neglected stepchild, Haiti has not fared well in America’s racist immigration policy, with the separate and unequal treatment of Haitian and Cuban refugees. Haitians fought with the colonists in the American Revolution, but America never repaid the favor.
Natural disasters shed light on the disaster of poverty. Such is also the case with New Orleans, another of America’s neglected stepchildren. For years, that city served as America’s playground. But when Hurricane Katrina hit, people around the world were exposed to images of the African-American citizens of New Orleans – poverty-stricken, disenfranchised, disregarded, and left to fend for themselves.
Haiti and New Orleans have a great deal in common, including cultural ties. After all, historically, Haitian immigrants helped to build New Orleans. But they have more in common than that. Both are the victims of policies that callously ignored them, and failed to deal with the consequences of intractable poverty. Americans glued to the TV screen are witnessing the horrific images of human suffering amidst the rubble in Port-au-Prince, and the deprivation made only worse by the rubble of the earthquake. And they are touched and they want to help, and rightly so. Without doubt, whether they are moved or not, many Americans believe that they are far removed from the poverty they witnessed in Port-au-prince, or the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans for that matter. Yet, they are mistaken.
America ranks 30th in the world in infant mortality. The infant mortality rate in some parts of the U.S., and among some groups such as African Americans, is as high as some Third World nations. Further, childhood poverty is at 20 percent. One in eight Americans, and one of every four children in America depends on food stamps. About half of American children, and 90 percent of black children, will live in a household that depends on food stamps at some point before they turn 20. And 63 percent of teachers buy food for hungry students with their own money.
The Great Recession – combined with years of regressive economic policies that favored the wealthy and corporations – is resulting in the erosion of the middle class, as more people are plunging into poverty and homelessness. The mortgage and foreclosure crisis is responsible for an unprecedented evaporation of wealth, particularly in the black and Latino communities.
According to a new report from United for a Fair Economy, unemployment rates among people of color are the highest in 27 years. Bad economic times have widened the racial wealth and income disparities. African-Americans and Latinos are nearly 3 times as likely to live in poverty as whites. And while blacks earn 62 cents for every dollar of white income, Latinos earn 68 cents for every white dollar.
The report also notes that around 3.4 million families experienced a foreclosure in 2009. Initially driven by costly subprime lending (which comprised over half of the mortgages to black folks in recent years), nearly 60 percent of mortgage defaults last year were due to unemployment. “The Obama Administration missed opportunities in 2009 to stop foreclosures, stabilize the economy, and start rebuilding wealth in the communities that the predatory mortgage industry targeted,” according to the report.
And poverty in America, like poverty in Haiti or anywhere for that matter, will only exacerbate unless decisive action is taken now. When we decry the sorry state of human existence in other nations, we must also acknowledge the deplorable conditions of people in our own midst and within our own so-called land of plenty. And we must understand the ways in which poverty in Port-au-Prince is related to poverty in New Orleans, or Detroit, or Philadelphia.
As the effort to rebuild Haiti begins, there is now talk in the international financial community of forgiving Haiti’s $1 billion debt. That is a good thing. But we should not wait for a catastrophe to deal with issues of poverty, economic inequality and justice. We must deal with the silent catastrophe that is occurring right before our very eyes.
This article first appeared in The Black Commentator and is republished with permission.