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National NOW Times >> Summer 2002 >> Article

March Brings Attention to Poverty in the U.S. Amid Olympic Spectacle

by Lisa Bennett, Communications Director

The United States is the richest country in the world, yet has the highest rate of poverty of any industrialized country. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 31 million people in the U.S. live in poverty. Children make up 37 percent of that total. People of color represent 52 percent of the whole.

While these are the official numbers, many, many more women, men and children go to bed hungry and struggle every day to make ends meet. The official numbers are so low because the "thresholds" used to determine poverty apply to only the poorest of the poor. An individual person must have an income of $8,794 or less to be considered poor; a family of four must have an income of $17,603 or less to qualify as poor.

To bring attention to this crisis, the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign organized the "March For Our Lives" in Salt Lake City, Utah, on the day of the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. The March drew over 400 participants, including poor and homeless families from across the U.S. and from countries around the world, as well as many activists for economic justice.

"I come to you today as a poor woman who has lived on the streets of this rich country with my son. I'm here to say that real 'homeland security' is feeding, clothing, and housing ourselves and our children," said Cheri Honkala, Director of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. "We're here for the over 45 million Americans who don't have access to health care. We're here for the homeless of Salt Lake City who have been shut out of homeless facilities to hide the poor. We're here to say we will not disappear."

Terry O'Neill, NOW's membership vice president, traveled to Salt Lake City to speak and march on behalf of NOW: "It's been five years since so-called welfare reform. People are leaving the welfare rolls hungry and homeless. We have to stop making the reduction of the rolls the goal of U.S. policy. We must make ending poverty the goal."

Why the Olympics?

The U.S. government's expenditure on the 2002 Winter Olympics was nearly double that of the 1996 summer games in Atlanta. In addition to $230 million in state and local funds spent on these Olympic games, the federal government kicked in nearly $400 million, not including another $1.1 billion in accelerated federal spending on Utah highways, bridges, a light-rail transit system and other public improvements local officials wanted to complete in time for the games.

The Olympics were not without inspiring moments for feminists, including U.S. athletes Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers. When they won the first Olympic gold medal in women's bobsled, Flowers became the first African American ever to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics. No matter how people got their news, they learned of these glorious victories from widespread media coverage.

However, few people outside of the city heard about the action for economic rights. Newspapers and television reporters, busy with sports and human interest stories, virtually ignored the march.

"Features about Jell-O, the Mormon church, and ice skating scandals are fine, but it's a shame the media ignored the real story of starving people in our own country," said O'Neill. "While poor people in this nation struggle to feed, clothe and house themselves, our government helped foot the bill for a self-congratulatory extravaganza."

"Why have most media outlets neglected to compare the government's use of taxpayer dollars to pay for the Olympics with its continued disregard for the poor in the U.S., specifically the loss of the welfare safety net and the punitive 'assistance' programs that have hurt countless women and their children," asked O'Neill.

To read more about NOW's work on economic justice, and to find out what you can do to help end poverty in the U.S., connect to NOW's Economic Equity page or call 202-628-8669, ext. 145.

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