As a child, I was waiting one night for my mother to put dinner on the table when some unforgettable images leaped from the TV screen. The year was 1967, and I was just 8 years old. I recall a reporter had been shadowing Sen. Robert Kennedy deep into the Mississippi Delta to visit what had been dubbed the “poorest place in America” — Sugar Ditch, Miss.
Kennedy, who was studying the federal anti-poverty program, appeared stricken by what he saw. Stark poverty. A shanty town with an open sewer running through it. Faces of poor black families with malnourished children living in squalor.
I flashed back to that moment recently when I heard that one in five Mississippians is living on food stamps. And this at a time when Congress is considering cuts to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP).
Mississippi has a lot of company these days. Forty-six million Americans receive assistance from SNAP, up more than 8% from a year earlier, according to the Agriculture Department. This aid is even more necessary as food prices are expected to jump as much as 4.5% this year, compared with a milder 0.8% last year.
Not surprisingly, a new Census measure underscores the economic challenges in America: A record 49 million Americans live in poverty, and those older than 65 are suffering the largest increase. For the first time, the number of Hispanics living in poverty surpassed that of African Americans.
In another study, the Brookings Institution found that the number of people living in neighborhoods of “extreme poverty” — areas where at least 40% of the population lives below the federal poverty line —has jumped by more than one-third in the past decade.
If people can’t work, they can’t eat. Before Congress begins slashing food stamps and other services, members should go out and look into the faces of proud Americans who desperately want to work but have been pushed into the ranks of the unemployed. They should talk to the working poor trapped in extreme poverty in their states and districts.
Fortunately, Sugar Ditch, Miss., no longer exists. After Jesse Jackson visited the area in 1985 with a camera crew, the state eventually knocked down the remaining empty houses and cleaned up the area.
But thanks to Kennedy’s visit, the nation saw the ugly side of poverty and was moved to act. Let’s not forget the compassion and empathy that have defined this country for generations.