This past Wednesday, most of Puerto Rico was literally in the dark. Victims of both Hurricane Maria and rampant poverty, the residents of this island have spent much of the last seven months without power. We on the mainland have generally paid the islanders’ suffering little mind. But Wednesday was different – the eyes of baseball fans all over the USA were focused on this American territory, which was hosting a nationally televised two-game series between the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins, and this last power outage came right in the middle of the series. Thanks to a combo of backup systems and lights from mobile towers, the Major Leaguers were permitted to “Play Ball!” The game lasted 16 innings, long enough that fans could gradually see some neighborhood lights come on by game’s end. Meanwhile, fans like me who watched on TV saw commercials about Puerto Rico’s sandy beaches and beautiful sunsets. The hope is that those of us with money might be tempted by the TV ads to hop on a plane and head to the island, where we could spend money on snorkeling, the gumbo dish known as “asopao,” and pina coladas. We’d enjoy a trip to the Caribbean, and the money we spent would trickle down to the natives. This is what “charity” looks like in 2018.
To the extent poverty continues to delay the island’s recovery, well, that’s not perceived on the mainland as our problem. After all, Puerto Rico is widely seen as just-barely American. Even though the population of the island dwarfs that of several states, we don’t give Puerto Ricans representation in Congress. Here, in Washington, people can talk about the fate of Puerto Ricans, but nobody is going to get worked up about them. And so, like the proverbial Jewish mother (Q: “How many Jewish mothers does it take to screw in a light bulb?” A: “Don’t worry, I’ll read in the dark.”), Puerto Ricans will continue to suffer in darkness and in silence.
What’s happened on that island is simply one of many examples of how our society deals with its poverty problem. Plenty of families don’t pay it any mind. As the story goes, their own ancestors came to this country poor, “picked themselves up by the bootstraps,” and now serve to illustrate how poor people have only themselves to blame. We’ve all heard that attitude expressed; it makes me wince every time I hear it. And worst of all is to listen to the silver-spooners – the individuals who come from money, pretty much screw around throughout their childhood and young-adulthood, and yet make condescending judgments upon any of their poor counterparts who don’t behave like paragons of virtue and mold their biographies into Horatio Alger stories. Our nation’s poor must negotiate an obstacle course filled with drugs, violent crime, and incarceration, not to mention burnout teachers. And, like the Puerto Ricans without power, they must suffer in silence, for just about nobody on the “mainland” – meaning outside their own enclaves – seems to get worked up about their plight.
Believe me, some of us may not see the consequences of poverty, but we all feel them. We feel them in the overall economic productivity of our society. We feel them in the burdens on our health care system. And we even feel them in ways that most of us can’t even imagine, including something as seemingly far afield as anti-Semitism.
I was reading this morning about different African-American leaders who have expressed support over the years for Louis Farrakhan, the virulent and blatant Jew-hater who has headed up the Nation of Islam. It is glib to attribute Farrakhan’s popularity primarily to his anti-Semitism. More likely, Farrakhan and his organization have capitalized on the fact that they work diligently to serve poor communities in an era when most public leaders behave as if the poor don’t even exist. In other words, our collective amnesia on the topic of poverty has created a vacuum and Farrakhan and his minions have filled it. Then, when he spews bile about Jews, the same people who don’t otherwise ignore poverty will ignore his anti-Semitism (which is seen as less important than his positive work). This is one reason why Jews are increasingly hated not only by the alt-right but also by the hard-left. If we confront poverty, much of this goes away.
Sadly, in the previous decade, the national voice who was loudest on this issue was John Edwards, a flim-flam artist. Then, when Bernie Sanders focused a light on poverty in the past election cycle, he was hit with a devastating one-two punch: the huge popularity of the Clintons among African-American leaders and the willingness of the Democratic establishment to cheat in order to get their favorite candidate nominated. Bernie’s candidacy was the little engine that could, until it ran up against one “hill” too many, and the rest is history. Now Bernie is back to being a voice in the wilderness, poverty is back to being a hidden issue, and the press is obsessed with sex scandals and other kinds of misconduct that don’t involve the neglect of the poor.
Apparently, Jesus was indeed a prophet when he taught that the poor will always be with us. But perhaps, instead of thinking about that statement, we should reflect on the words of his disciples, who questioned Jesus for wasting perfume on himself when it could instead have been sold and used to help the poor. Credit those disciples – and, of course, their master – with a sincere passion for lifting up those who are most in need. Whether the nation’s poor live in San Juan, Puerto Rico or in urban mainland neighborhoods like Watts, Anacostia or Hunts Point, the rest of us ignore them at the expense of our own souls. You may want to think about this when you go to the polls in this primary season. Ask yourselves which candidates are calmly talking about this issue, and which candidates are getting worked up about it. The latter are the ones who are taking our prophets seriously. The latter are the ones who deserve our vote.