OPINION: Meredith offers harsh diagnosis of the worst poverty

His voice is distinctive with a high– pitched timbre and after a number of conversations over the years, I’ve come to recognize James Meredith’s voice on the telephone.
Meredith called Monday to talk about the cycle of shocking, abject poverty that grips an alarming number of Americans – and an even more alarming percentage of Mississippians.
In the Sunday newspaper, Clarion– Ledger writer Billy Watkins told the poignant story of 87 year–old Esther Davis. Davis lives in the most deplorable conditions imaginable in little more than a shack in rural Scott County.
Davis, as Watkins chronicled, is emblematic of a forgotten segment of Americans who have fallen through the cracks of a social service system that most Americans believe takes care of the impoverished elderly.
For Davis and others like her, the government has simply lost the war on poverty and as she is isolated by advancing age and the absence of a nuclear family the government doesn’t particularly engage in the battle any longer.
What Watkins was able to portray was the fact that the best help for Davis was coming from her non-nuclear family – friends, neighbors and the faith– based community.
Meredith, 76, of Jackson remains involved in promoting social change – but remains best known for winning admission to Ole Miss in 1962 after violent riots that left two dead.
Forty-six years later, the university is the repository of Meredith’s donated personal and professional papers and an impressive monument to his struggle for admission has been dedicated on the lawn of the Lyceum.
Meredith called me to say that Watkins’ story about Mrs. Davis was “the most important article” he’s read in some time. He said it captures, in his opinion, the fundamental question about poverty.
“There was a time that the basic unit of government was the family,” said Meredith. “Now, it’s the individual. That’s why conditions like these exist.”
Meredith blames “the ideology that government can solve human problems” for conditions of abject poverty like those Watkins encountered with Mrs. Davis.
“The whole idea is that a person can become so isolated from family, friends, neighbors, and then no one assumes responsibility for them,” said Meredith. “Everyone feels helpless – because since everyone expects the government to provide the ultimate solution, the power has been taken away from them and no one reacts, no one helps.”
Clearly, as in the case of Mrs. Davis, the mere existence of federal anti-poverty programs is not enough to guarantee that the afflicted among us not end up living in squalor. For the elderly Scott County woman, it was only when neighbors took on the traditional role of family members in taking pro-active steps to provide ongoing support for her need that Mrs. Davis’ lot in life began to improve.
Meredith offers what many will consider a harsh diagnosis of a snapshot of some of Mississippi’s abject poverty. It’s also true that some will say that abject, cyclical poverty is a complex problem and that Meredith’s observations over- simplify the situation.
But even Meredith’s critics must admit that his argument that social responsibility begins with personal responsibility is one that is exceedingly difficult to counter.

Contact syndicated columnist Sid Salter at (601) 961–7084 or e– mail ssalter@clarionledger.com.

Sid Salter