al calloway.jpgFor inner-city dwellers, viable businesses have been long gone from Main Street. These mostly poor and near-poor people crowd on buses and subways with loads of groceries in plastic bags and overfilled shopping carts, having to travel distances to supermarkets and other stores. 


Used clothing, furniture and 99 cent stores, pawn shops, social service places, check-cashing and payday lender storefronts mark commercial zones in these people’s neighborhoods. Those with incomes above the poverty line, including retirees, left for the suburbs, taking the tax base and spending power with them.

What may seem somewhat imperceptible, these communities are yet steadily becoming unsustainable.  High unemployment, the working poor earning less than a living wage, a vast majority (if not all in some cases) of neighborhood children receive the free and reduced-price lunch at school — some also get breakfast — this and more means poverty.

Whole cities that were once thriving middle-class havens are now virtually desolate. Youngstown, Ohio, in what is now called our nation’s rust belt, for example, was once a thriving city of plants, factories, retail businesses and middle-income workers. Retirees were revered for their 30 and 40 years working for one company. Well, the plants and factories moved to Mexico and elsewhere and, as of November 2011, the poverty rate is 49.7 percent in Youngstown, Ohio.

Like Detroit and elsewhere, Youngstown has to deal with the fallout attributable to poverty: welfare, loss of confidence/low self-esteem, substance abuse, rising crime rate, health and family problems, including foreclosures and homelessness, a deteriorating environment and so on. 

The three questions that must be asked and resolved in America are these: If democracy is defined by favoring social equality, then, by definition, poverty cannot be democratic and is, therefore, something else? Then what is poverty in a so-called democratic society? So is democracy or poverty an aberration or a contradiction and, if so, which is which?

Now that it is everywhere quite evident that a plutocracy has taken over “our” so-called democracy and are plundering it to the extent that the vaunted middle class is shrinking for the first time in U.S. history, Americans are taking to the streets in protest. Right now, these protesters who call themselves “the 99%” and the “Occupy Wall Street” movement are mostly white middle-class people.

When and if the movement begins to swell with poor and near-poor people, especially African Americans and Latinos, violence will spread like wildfire through paid provocateurs and riot-trained police.  Media coverage will be mixed with neo-conservative Fox News TV stations’ talking heads leading the way blaming violence on peaceful demonstrators. Conservative politicians will chime in praising police action.

The lack of equity is discrimination, plain and simple. Where one person or group has access to needs and desires and others are denied the same access and local, state and federal governments allow the distinction, democracy does not exist.  In fact, a class and caste system is in operation where such distinctions exist. That is how fascism and communism operate and other totalitarian regimes.

This forked-tongue attribute wherein one thing is said but another thing is meant and then done is also anti-biblical, isn‘t it? How, then, can so-called Christian leaders support such an on-going and pervasive contradiction? The same questions have to be answered by Jewish and Islamic leaders here, as well.

Author and career educator, Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D writes in her teaching book, Bridges out of Poverty, “We cannot continue to support stereotypes and prejudices about the poor. There are many forms of welfare, but the poor are the only ones who are labeled ‘undeserving.’ Others who receive welfare are students with government fellowships, homeowners with federal-tax and mortgage-interest deductions, corporations with government subsidies, and military bases that are kept open to prevent job losses.” 

Payne also tells us, “We cannot blame the victims of poverty for being in poverty. Economic systems are far beyond the reach of most people to control. Factories close, small farms fold, racism persists, and the economy fails to provide enough well-paying jobs.”

Al Calloway is a longtime journalist who began his career with the Atlanta Inquirer during the early 1960s civil rights struggle. He may be reached at

Photo: Al Calloway