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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 September 2005, 10:52 GMT 11:52 UK
American dream eludes the poorest

By Gavin Esler
Presenter, Newsnight

People queuing for day-old bread distributed by a charity in Georgia, USA
People waiting for food donated by a local supermarket in Georgia
All around the world the lasting images of Hurricane Katrina were not of the storm, but of the poor.

In the superpower where President George Bush promised "no child left behind" - tens of thousands of children, and their parents, were indeed left behind. Literally.

Because the United States is the richest country on earth, there was something particularly shocking about the images of America's poor, stranded, helpless and hopeless, begging for aid from the US federal government.

What we saw was poverty with a black face. All around the world - and in the United States itself - people asked why the American Dream was not able to touch every American.

Poverty and race

Newsnight wanted to explore the twin issues of poverty and race in George Bush's America. The simple fact is that most Americans in poverty are not black - whites make up most of the population, and most of the poor.

And, whatever the pictures from New Orleans seem to suggest, most black Americans do not live in poverty. There is a healthy black middle class, and of course many outstandingly successful African American citizens, from Colin Powell and Condi Rice to black business-people all over the US.

Bernice Beatty (far right) and others collect day-old bread and vegetables at Sister Pat Baber's Catholic charity
Bernice Beatty works in childcare and gets a modest veteran's pension but can't make ends meet
But where poverty and race do come together they produce America's most explosive political cocktail: the idea that 140 years after the end of slavery and 40 years after the South was de-segregated, black Americans still do not get a fair deal.

Why - for example is a black American child five times more likely to live in poverty than a white child? Why is a black American baby more likely to die in the months after birth than a Cuban baby, or one born in Beijing?

We chose to film in Savannah, Georgia for a number of reasons. In many ways it is like New Orleans - a grand city of the Old South, a port where African slaves were once brought in for sale, a town in America's hurricane belt much loved by tourists.

Food handouts

It is also a city which has begun a very encouraging anti-poverty programme. Behind the rich colonial facade of Savannah there is the same kind of hidden chronic poverty, especially among African Americans, that you find in New Orleans.

The big question for George Bush [after Katrina] is how far the US federal government can and should help the poor
Gavin Esler
We crossed over to the wrong side of the tracks - up Martin Luther King Boulevard to the largely African American area known as Cuyler Brownville. What we found there was utterly shocking.

At seven o'clock on Thursday mornings about 50 African Americans gather on the breadline at a Cuyler Brownville community centre. They are waiting for day old bread and vegetables donated by a local supermarket to a Catholic charity run by Sister Pat Baber.

Many of the volunteers are white, and there were absolutely no signs of racial tension. Just desperation. We met Bernice Beatty who works in childcare for $150 a week, and also receives a modest veteran's pension because her dead husband was in the US military. But she cannot make ends meet and comes here for free food.

Doctors and nurses offer their skills for free at the Georgia's Savannah Health Mission
The Savannah Health Mission offers treatment for free but many cannot afford the drugs prescribed
In the centre of town in one of the grand Savannah squares I met black men desperate for a job as day labourers. When a van arrived offering a day's work they swarmed around. The going rate is about 3 an hour, 120 a week, 6,000 a year. In America, it is difficult to see how you can live on that.


Then we visited Savannah Health Mission where doctors and nurses give their time and expertise for free to treat the poor. Around 50 million Americans - the same as the population of all of England - have no health insurance.

One patient, Cindi, was grateful for her treatment but could not afford any of the drugs prescribed by the free doctors. One prescription costs $266 a month. Another $150. Cindi requires seven different medications. Cindi happened to be white.

The big question for George Bush as he ponders the aftershocks of Hurricane Katrina, is how far the US federal government can and should help the poor.

Unemployed men seeking labouring work in one of Savannah's public squares
Unemployed men battle to get a day's labouring work paid an average of 3 per hour
Ever since President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programmes of the 1960s Democrats and Republicans have concluded that simply throwing tax dollars at the problem does not work.

Churches, charities, valiant individuals like Sister Pat, local governments like the enterprising folk who run the city of Savannah are trying their best.

But it is not enough.

And what is the responsibility of the poor to help themselves?

On Newsnight, we will also hear from a black community worker who says the fast-track to poverty is dropping out of high school, taking drugs, and getting pregnant as a teenager.

Avoid all that, and at least you have a chance of the American Dream.

Gavin Esler's report on poverty in the United States will be shown by Newsnight on Thursday, 22 September on BBC Two at 2230 BST.

Poverty and segregation in America's deep south


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