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News: The Truth About Being Poor

But was it so hard to find witnesses?

By Stephanie Dunlap · January 18th, 2006 · News
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  State Rep. Catherine Barrett (left) and Diane Enscoe addressed the truth commission on poverty.
Graham Lienhart

State Rep. Catherine Barrett (left) and Diane Enscoe addressed the truth commission on poverty.

Try to forget for a minute about human rights violations internationally. Let's talk about the human rights being violated right here in the United States.

Such as this one: "Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration, ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection."

That's Article 25(1) of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Using that 1948 declaration as a guide, the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign has adopted the "truth commission" format to illustrate the gross economic human rights violations that create and sustain poverty in the United States. Those include violations of the rights to food, housing, health, education, communication and a job with a living wage.

"Part of the reason that this war on the poor continues and why the poor are not surviving is that our suffering has been made invisible," says the campaign's Web site (www.economichumanrights.org).

'We're stuck'
"Truth commissions" were made famous by South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the early 1990s. Truth commissions have also been held in Peru, Argentina and Chile.

Ohio's first truth commissions took place Jan.14 in Cincinnati and Cleveland.

Local truth commissions are slated to culminate in a National Truth Commission in Cleveland this summer, followed by a Truth Commission on Poverty in the U.S. at the World Social Forum in Kenya in 2007.

About 40 people assembled in the basement of New Prospect Baptist Church in Over-the Rhine while the strains of choir rehearsal drifted down from the sanctuary above.

First to speak was Diane Enscoe, whose four-day hospital stay cost a cool $4,600 she couldn't pay because she was unemployed and her husband was on disability assistance.

To ease the money crunch, they tried to refinance their house only to find that the hospital had put a lien on it for the unpaid bill.

"Now we're stuck," she recalled thinking, wiping at tearing eyes with a tissue. "Now our house payment takes up our whole check."

With the help of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and her children, the hospital removed the lien. But her story isn't unusual, she said -- only its happier ending.

Next up was Christine Schnetzer, speaking on behalf of the Ohio Empowerment Coalition. In vague terms she described her own struggle against domestic abuse and called for Ohio to add a Family Violence Option (FVO) clause to its welfare restrictions. Forty-seven states already make some provision to ease work requirements for battered spouses in danger of being stalked and extend the time limits placed on their public assistance. Organizers passed out form letters addressed to Gov. Bob Taft, encouraging the implementation of FVO in Ohio.

Speaking next on immigration issues, Exel Santiago of SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaign read his statement in Spanish from a sheaf of yellow legal paper. A translator's English version described the rich culture, 30-year civil war and dire economic opportunities of Santiago's native Guatemala.

Santiago said it was hard to adapt in the United States, where he was lucky to find work as a janitor.

"I'm here to better my life socially and economically," he said.

Katy Heins outlined a major problem facing Santiago as well as natural-born citizens in Ohio -- a state minimum wage of $4.25 per hour, which is even less than the federal level of $5.15 per hour (see "The Minimum We Can Do," issue of Jan. 4-10).

A full-time worker in Ohio has to earn $12.40 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment, Heins said.

Too few stories
The truth commission format didn't seem to get very far, with only three people telling their stories. That disappointed Shirley Rosser, who arrived 25 minutes into the two-hour commission only to find that she'd missed all the speakers.

"I expected to hear more testimony," she said.

The value of truth commissions lies in hearing people describe their own experiences, which communicates in a way that quotes in a newspaper or NPR sound bites can't, Rosser said.

The commission was also marred somewhat by an uncertain moderator, who had to be prompted from the back to correct her estimate of proposed federal cuts to social services from $40,000 to the actual amount of $40 billion. Organizers then passed out another form letter, this one urging U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Westwood) to oppose those cuts.

Throughout the program, a "listening panel" quietly took in the proceedings. There, if body language was any indication, state representatives Tom Brinkman Jr. (R-Mount Lookout), Catherine Barrett (D-Forest Park) and Steve Driehaus (D-Price Hill) and Tony Stieritz, director of the Catholic Social Action Office for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, listened with varying degrees of openness.

Conservative maverick Brinkman was the room's oddest man out, a free-market activist who leads every anti-tax initiative he can get his hands on. He frequently looked uncomfortable or disapproving, but he did show up.

Brinkman registered his disapproval when the listening panel was allowed a couple minutes at the mic.

"I'd be remiss if I told you I agree with every issue that came up here, because I don't," he said.

Later he said he objected to minimum wage and price controls and that he, unlike Santiago and most present, is in favor of making English the official state language.

But Brinkman also praised the proceedings.

"I enjoy coming and hearing these stories," he said, thanking organizers for keeping people informed.

The rest of the listening panel reacted more enthusiastically. Driehaus added predatory lending to the list of injustices and discussed a bill to introduce financial literacy education in schools.

Barrett talked about challenges to Medicare Part D but said the biggest ill was poverty.

"If we erase that, we can overcome some of these health issues," she said.

The Catholic Church is mobilizing on the issue of immigration reform to address the needs of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, according to Stieritz.

By his estimation, the truth commission was just the beginning.

"The good thing about truth commissions is the truth doesn't end with the commission but the truth gets out to those who need to hear the truth," he said. ©



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