Current Affairs

Hoosier miracle

Indiana_state_flag I don't make a habit of writing political posts here. In fact, this is my first one. So I hope you'll indulge me for one day while I share a few personal thoughts on what happened yesterday here in my home state.

Barack Obama won the state of Indiana. I'm going to type that again just because it feels so good. Barack Obama won the state of Indiana.

I know that's not the big story. Barack Obama is President-elect of the United States of America. That's the big story, and no local victory can match the impact of this momentous event. But if you had grown up where I grew up; if you had seen the things I've seen living in my home state; and if you understood how utterly impossible this victory seemed even a mere six months ago - you would perhaps feel what I feel today. You would grasp the magnitude of this event.

I am a liberal. Not a moderate. Not a centrist. Not a "social liberal." I'm what my neighbors call a "Kennedy liberal." This means that here in Indiana, I am a perpetual loser. With the exception of my grad school years living in New York and a few years teaching in Wisconsin (both places where my politics were considered acceptable, if not universally embraced), every Presidential election cycle in my lifetime has meant defeat. Even in the Clinton years, we failed to deliver the state of Indiana. We never even came close. Indiana always votes Republican.

On my local election ballot yesterday, I could choose from a total of three Democrats: Obama for President, and two candidates running for state office. Every other candidate on my ballot was a Republican running unopposed.

Indiana is the home of the Church of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Throughout the early part of the 20th century, Indiana's Klansmen came from all walks of life. They were not disproportionately rural, or less educated or even predominantly fundamentalist. Several of the most powerful Grand Wizards of the Klan hailed from Indiana. I have never bothered to trace it, but I am certain some of my ancestors were active members of the KKK.

Indiana is a deeply conservative state with a long history of intolerance. Racial epithets remain commonplace (Mexican immigrants have replaced African Americans as the favorite target), and being gay is still a dangerous thing to be in the wrong bar on a Saturday night. My neighbor three doors down has a Confederate flag in his window.

And Barack Obama won the state of Indiana yesterday. Do you see the miracle of this? I'm too old and too cynical to think we've erased all our problems or found sudden enlightenment. But maybe we've begun to turn the corner in my tiny spot on the globe. Maybe this is the beginning of real change.

I knocked on doors and made phone calls for Barack Obama, and so did many of my friends. It was to be another hopeless cause. It was to be just another heartbreaking election night in Indiana. But it wasn't. He won. We won. For the first time in my political life, I feel proud to call myself a Hoosier. And for the first time in so very many years, I feel proud to call myself an American.

The poverty we forget


I'm participating in the worldwide Blog Action Day focusing on the issue of poverty. It's easy to be cynical about these kinds of online efforts, but I choose not to be. Collectively directing our attention to the issue of poverty, even for a day, can encourage us to work together to assist those who need help and address the root causes of the problem.

Today I'm focusing on the poverty I know and best understand: rural poverty in America. Millions of children in the wealthiest country on earth will go to bed hungry tonight, including children whose names I know, living in my neighborhood.

When we think of poverty in America, we often conjure up images of blighted urban areas and neighborhoods racked by drugs, gang violence, and rampant unemployment. These images are real, of course, but they don't tell the whole story of what poverty in America really looks like. A few facts:

  • 340 of the 386 (88%) Persistently Poor Counties are rural.
  • 18% of rural counties are persistent poverty counties, versus only 4% of urban counties. The non-urban South, with over 40 percent of the U.S. rural population, has a significantly higher incidence of poverty.
  • 82% of the rural persistently poor counties are in the South.

Persistent Poverty Counties are those that have had poverty rates of 20% or higher in every decennial census between 1970 and 2000.

I grew up in a single-parent family on the margins of poverty in small-town rural Indiana. Few of my friends went to college; most graduated or left school early to work in the factories or on the farms surrounding our town. When those factories closed, hundreds of people I grew up with - now with children of their own - were thrown out of work and forced to scramble for minimum-wage jobs, often working two or three at a time. Today my home town looks like a bombed out version of the one I remember as a child. Those old jobs aren't coming back, and that little town will likely never recover. But the people are still there, and they struggle to make ends meet every day.

If you'd like to know more about the issue of rural poverty in America, including a fresh look at effective antipoverty policies that have been proven to work, I recommend this document (PDF format) published by the Rural Poverty Research Center. It contains several articles that explore the basic assumptions behind the causes of rural poverty, and it calls for a new direction in philanthropy that recognizes the critical roles race, class, and power play in perpetuating rural poverty.