When presidential hopeful Mitt Romney announced two weeks ago that Rep. Paul Ryan would be his running mate, Ryan said, “We look at one another’s success with pride, not resentment, because we know that as more Americans work hard, take risks, succeed, more people will prosper, more communities will benefit and individual lives will be improved… We promise equal opportunity, not equal outcomes.”
Sadly, this is not a country of equal opportunity. We have learned that our collective success is not always tied to our neighbor’s success. In fact, our neighbor’s success is often built on the backs of the most vulnerable among us. I see this regularly on my trips to low-income communities in Texas and across the country.
Last week, I had the opportunity to visit several unincorporated towns known as colonias near the Texas-Mexico border just outside of El Paso. Residents of the colonias live in third-world poverty. People build their homes out of whatever materials they can find — sometimes cinder blocks, plywood, homemade adobe bricks or sheet metal. Many of the colonias we visited have no water running, sewer lines or public transportation. Grocery stores are 45 minutes away in El Paso. The residents we met were documented U.S. citizens.
Many residents were forced to live in the colonias because they could no longer afford their homes in El Paso after the garment industry factories closed. Over the past decade, many American companies have moved their factories just over the border to Mexico in search of cheaper labor with the hopes of higher profits after the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed into law.
Colonia residents who use public transportation when available leave on the 6:00 a.m. bus for the city where clean homes or have other low wage jobs and return home on the 8:00 p.m. bus. A trip to the grocery store takes the same amount of time, as there is only one bus into town each day and one bus home. For a time, some residents grew their own vegetables. They were allowed to purchase water from the regional Water District, which controls the flow of water for irrigation in desert regions like West Texas and New Mexico. However, the Water District no longer allows these residents to purchase water for irrigation, and without this water, people can no longer grow their own food. What I saw in these colonias certainly did not look like a land of equal opportunity but a never-ending cycle of poverty.
The colonias provide an interesting paradigm. America has always prided itself on the belief that hard work will ensure wealth and success. However, what Americans fail to recognize is that this ideology is not always true. Individuals residing in colonias did not lose their jobs because of a poor work ethic but rather because of a decision made to cut labor costs to maximize corporate profit.
The colonias outside of El Paso may be an extreme example of poverty; however, hardworking impoverished families live in every American community. As the working poor continue to barely make ends meet, this nation must realize that this vulnerable population has faced the worst of this recession. America, being the wealthiest nation in the world, had over 46 million people living in poverty in 2010. Nearly one in five Americans say they did not have enough money to pay for food at some point this year. Since the mid-1980s, the gap between rich and poor in the U.S. has widened by 20 percent, more than in most developed countries. Most important, as the inequality between rich and poor continues to grow; we decrease the chance of generating economic expansion and increase the likelihood of another financial collapse.
In LBJ’s War on Poverty address to Congress, he said, “Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities.” Whether we like it or not, Americans’ lives are inextricably woven together. The well-being of those in El Paso, Austin or Washington, D.C. is contingent upon the well-being of those living in the colonias.
My faith informs my worldview. Jesus taught us that whatever we do to the least of these, we do unto Him. I have a hard time believing that it is cosmically all right to leave people to struggle without health care, adequate food, decent housing, transportation, water and sanitation while others who have so much complain about tax rates being too high.
Rep. Ryan’s statement is a half-truth. We do want individuals to be successful in the United States, and if those individuals have the best interest of their communities in mind, we can all benefit. However, if people do not have the community or country’s collective best interest at heart, exploitation is inevitable. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Unfortunately, this is not a country of equal opportunity, although it needs to be and it can be. It will require all of us, elected officials included, to have as much care and concern for the well-being of the impoverished among us as we have for our own comfort and security.
This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.
HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the persistence of poverty in America August 29th and September 5th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out — and join the conversation.