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Urban Rhythms

Who Do You Love?

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 10/17/2001

President Bush's call to American children to contribute a dollar to a special White House relief fund for starving Afghan orphans was so transparent and manipulative that my teeth started chattering with rage during his speech.

Yeah, I can just see an Afghan family looking up with joy as U.S. bombs and food start raining down upon their village: "Look, Ahmed! Bombs and food! America truly is a compassionately conservative nation!"

Yet American children have responded. Within hours of the president's plea on Oct. 11, dollar bills began pouring into the White House. Children across the country devoted all or part of the proceeds from candy sales and subscription drives to send food and medicine to the more than 10 million Afghan children. A quarter of those Afghan children will not make it to their fifth birthday, according to international relief agencies.

This response from America's children is consistent with a genuine national outpouring of compassion that followed the terrorist attack on Sept. 11. Forget about the posturing of politicians and the syrupy, self-serving corporate commercials on television. Ordinary people, like caped crusaders, are springing to the rescue. The American Red Cross has raised $375 million in a little more than a month to aid the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. Donors have besieged blood banks in both New York and Washington. Suddenly, firefighters and police officers--perennially underpaid and unappreciated--have eclipsed millionaire athletes and movie stars in the national esteem.

Yes, all at once and just like that, we have become the country that cares to care. The question is, how long will this national mood last? And will it be extended to the millions of starving orphans here at home?

"We certainly hope it will," says Laura Howell, director of advocacy and public affairs for the Baltimore-based Center for Poverty Solutions. "Obviously, people are struggling every day. There are children here that do not have enough food, no place to sleep. What happened on Sept. 11 hasn't changed that fact.

"It cuts two ways," Howell continues. "In general, people are more compassionate right now because of what happened. On the other hand, what happened was so horrific that everything else pales in comparison. That's our biggest fear--that the events of Sept. 11 have made all other tragedies seem trivial and unimportant."

And we have more than our share of tragedy. One out of six children in the United States--or 12.1 million--live in poverty, according to the Children's Defense Fund. Nearly 11 million children do not get adequate health care because they lack insurance. The child- and infant-mortality rates in this country are among the highest in the industrialized world.

"We have nothing to be proud of," Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, testified before Congress last August. "We cannot simply make modest efforts to improve the lives of these children and families. . . . We have the know-how, the experience, the tools and resources to end child poverty and suffering. And we have the responsibility as mothers, fathers, grandparents, and concerned and sensible citizens to act now."

Unfortunately, Americans traditionally have employed tiny little calipers to distinguish between those who deserve our compassion and those who do not. The victims on Sept. 11 were clearly innocent victims. They were hard-working men and women, sitting at their desks when terror struck. We can rally to their aid with a clear conscience. The 10 million starving Afghan orphans happen to be unfortunate enough to be caught between the United States and its prey. We can pity their plight. But for some reason, a starving inner-city child is nothing in our collective eyes but a stereotype.

"We fight the sense that the poor in America do not deserve our help everyday," Howell says. "It's easy to condemn generalities. But when you tell a story about someone, it becomes very different. Part of what's so powerful in New York was that the individual stories were so poignant--the young woman who was expecting, the newlywed, the father whose kids were supposed to graduate from school."

Howell says that when advocates manage to break through the stereotypes and tell individual stories of America's poor they find they can awaken the sympathy within policy-makers and members of the public. "It is the stories and the numbers," she says. "When we can show them the costs--here's what a typical family in poverty makes, here's their expenses--people can see right away that the numbers just don't add up."

Ironically, sympathy for America's children, if we manage to feel any at all, may owe more to the current downturn in the economy than the national mood. Howell says people feel more compassion for others during hard economic times than during a boom. "When they feel the bite themselves, or when they know that a member of their family is struggling financially, people are more likely to feel for others," she says.

We shall see about that. We shall see.

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