Op-Ed

Bashing the poor and jobless

Short-term memory loss is an epidemic spreading rapidly in Kentucky.

It wasn't so many years ago, after all, that we all watched in horror as fellow Americans cried for help while people died and children starved on the flooded streets of New Orleans. "This changes everything," we all said. "We've got to do something."

Amidst an unprecedented outpouring of support came cries for change that sparked hundreds of millions in public and private aid to the Gulf region and ultimately fed the political upheaval that Barack Obama rode into the White House.

Remember, it all started with a wake-up call. There were desperately poor people in America. In Central Kentucky. In Lexington. And guess what? They're still here.

Enter U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul. The poor in America don't have it that bad, he tells us.

Forget, for a minute, the irony of that statement coming from a successful ophthalmologist. Paul seems to have missed that he's running for office in a state where 17.3 percent of the people live below the federal poverty line.

That's more than 770,000 people just in Kentucky who, in a household of four people, live on $22,050 or less. That's about $1,800 a month before any deductions for health insurance, retirement or other needs.

Factor in Kentucky Utilities' likely increase in the average monthly residential cost of electricity to $115, while Kentucky American Water's rates are proposed to jump to a monthly average of $34.88. And the National Low Income Housing Coalition reports the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Fayette County is $729.

Now you've spent all but $921 and haven't paid for food, medicine, clothes, transportation, telephone and more. No, the poor in America don't have it so great — even if they do, as Paul pointed out, have color television.

But at least if you lose your job you know your employer paid into unemployment insurance to keep you from losing all income. Except Sens. Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning and University of Kentucky economist Ken Troske think unemployment insurance payments just make you lazy.

"Some people aren't taking jobs because they are still receiving benefits," Troske told The Lane Report this month.

I'd like to meet those people. I have some relatives who would take the jobs they don't want.

What makes us so forgetful? Within months, we were blaming the poor for their problems again — telling them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps but forgetting they had no boots to begin with.

Just last week, we watched as a well-intentioned church in Lexington was attacked by neighbors because they want to a purchase a building where a poor person just might at some point maybe perhaps come by for help.

The Vineyard wasn't trying to open a drop-in homeless shelter in the Fairway neighborhood, just trying to worship and serve its community.

After being called out in the media, neighbors reframed their argument to be about traffic at the former Julia R. Ewan Elementary School.

Interestingly enough, that wasn't an issue when it was an elementary school for hundreds of students or when a private school nearly purchased the property earlier in the year.

We've seen it before in Lexington and we'll see it again. Within hours of announcing plans to purchase the former Lexington Mall, Southland Christian Church faced criticism on multiple fronts. People who complained for years about the eyesore were suddenly concerned about lost tax revenue and traffic.

Or maybe it was that a group of people were, once again, trying to serve their community and help those less fortunate than themselves?

As a community, we nearly allowed the Manchester Center to close last month after 70 years of service to Lexington's poorest neighborhoods.

Why? According to some in the community there wasn't enough need in the area including the neighborhoods of Davistown, Irishtown, Spiegel Heights and Thompson Road — areas some historically call "the bottoms." That would be funny if not so terribly out of touch.

Why didn't more people give to the Manchester Center or demand that the local government step in and ensure those services remained? Why don't we want poor people helped in our backyard and how, exactly, did we become so self-centered that we think the poor have it pretty good?

We must once again become the people who called local organizations begging to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Without some kind of change, this short-term lapse will become a permanent barrier to long-term solutions.

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