Falling into the poverty gap

Published: Tuesday, January 28, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 28, 2003 at 1:00 a.m.
MIAMI - Adolfo Jesus Recio suffers from asthma, depression and unemployment. His left hand was badly injured in an accident and is now almost useless. He panhandles in the middle of a busy street in the shadow of the downtown Miami skyline.
No one pays much attention to Recio's hazardous pursuit of a handful of dimes and quarters. We've closed our eyes to poverty in the United States. Government aid these days goes to the plutocrats, and the poor are being left further and further behind.
"I eat from the garbage cans in back of Wendy's and in back of McDonald's," said Recio.
Recio pointed toward a highway overpass. "I sleep down there, on a cardboard box under the bridge."
Miami is the poorest big city in the United States - poorer than Newark, N.J., poorer than Detroit, poorer than any city with a population of 250,000 or more. Most of the poor are working, and many have more than one job.
But the economy is lousy and the city is teeming with immigrants willing to work for extremely low wages, even for pay below the minimum wage. So jobs are hard to find and wages across the board are rock-bottom.
"People are living on the edge, paycheck to paycheck," said Judith Gatti, director of the Daily Bread Food Bank.
She rattled off the categories of people needing food assistance: poor and working poor families, elderly men and women whose government checks are inadequate, mentally and physically handicapped people, battered women, people struggling with HIV and AIDS, the homeless. She said 43 percent of those helped by the food bank are children.
Over the past few days I met with several people who are working full time and still have trouble feeding themselves and their families. Celestine Hardie is a 49-year-old certified nurse's aide who makes $8.50 an hour working the overnight shift at a nursing home.
She then works three hours each morning (at $6.50 an hour) delivering sandwiches for a Subway franchise. She just barely makes it. She keeps her budget from caving in each month by eating at the nursing home and at Subway.
Hardie said that if she were to receive a windfall of some sort, she'd celebrate by treating her children and grandchildren to a dinner at Red Lobster.
A young woman named Naomi Sanchez said that her brother had turned to selling drugs and been murdered, and that her best girlfriend had become a prostitute. She said she was unemployed and was on her way to another friend's house, where she hoped she'd be able to get something to eat.
The poverty in Miami exists in a startling juxtaposition to great wealth. Just a few minutes' drive from the panhandling turf of Adolfo Jesus Recio are the sparkling shores of Miami Beach and the gateway to the pristine environs of Fisher Island, an exclusive enclave that, according to the 2000 census, is the wealthiest community in America.
Fisher Island is off limits to everyone except residents, invited guests and whatever employees are needed to keep them safe and comfortable. It is accessible only by ferry. If Recio showed up on the dock and tried to board the ferry, he'd be angrily hustled away.
The Miami area is the most extreme example of the economic inequality that is becoming more and more evident throughout the United States. If the gap between the folks at the top and those at the bottom continues to grow it will at some point undermine the social cohesion of the nation.
Anyone who thinks it's a good idea for the pampered elite of Fisher Island to stockpile more and more in the way of luxuries and privilege while increasing numbers of Miamians are going to bed hungry should think again.
Bob Herbert writes for The New York Times.

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