Mourning in America: Census Bureau’s Annual Poverty Report

By Andrew Wilkes
Guest Commentary

The Census Bureau released its 2010 report on poverty, income, and health insurance this week. Compared to the previous year, 900,000 more American lack health insurance; 2.4 million additional individuals are beneath the poverty line; median household incomes adjusted for inflation declined by 2.3 percent to $49,400; and lest we forget, unemployment is still above 9 percent. The Congressional Budget Office, moreover, forecasts that unemployment will hover around 9 percent through 2012.

This announcement unmistakably unveils the pervasive social misery in America. In such a catastrophic climate, Cornel West rightly avers that we must be “coffin-ready for the next great democratic battle in America”. If we presume that our democratic experiment languishes in life support—inching ever closer to the grave, then perhaps we should ask: what conditions might stave off its impending death?

Recovering a tradition of public mourning is one modest way to revive our democracy. Mourning, here, signifies direct or empathetic grieving concerning the swelling ranks of people who are uninsured, underemployed, and unemployed. When dramatized appropriately, it spotlights social indignities in a way that demands a political response.

Two examples merit mentioning: the Congressional Black Caucus jobs tour and the Poverty Tour of Tavis Smiley and Cornel West. By many accounts, anxiety and anguish filled the question and answer portion of the foregoing events, particularly in Detroit. These traveling sojourns dramatized — and politicized — the plight of poor folks in our nation. According to Congresswoman Maxine Waters, they are at least partly responsible for President Obama’s inclusion of the $5 billion Pathways Back to Work Fund for low-income youth and adults in the American Jobs Act. Equally important, the events could catalyze a substantive discussion on poverty in time for the 2012 election.

In a bitter inversion of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 presidential campaign theme, it’s a time of deep mourning in America. Negative economic trends on the scale of yesterday’s report deserve lamentation, as well as documentation. But to complete the work of public mourning, we need credible solutions for implementation within and across the private, public, and civil sectors. Today, we mourn. Tomorrow, let us transpose our mourning into mobilizing, our sorrow into strategizing.

AAndrew Wilkes works at Habitat for Humanity-NYC as the Faith and Community Relations associate and serves as an affiliate minister at the Greater Allen Cathedral of New York. Andrew is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and Hampton University. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewJWilkes is a cutting-edge online magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. The site offers a platform for young adult perspectives, profiles inspirational visionaries and artists, and serves as an online community for change agents who are like-minded. Founded in 2011 by Rahiel Tesfamariam, Urban Cusp highlights voices, ideas and images not commonly found within mainstream media.

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