Low-income Americans Will Suffer Most from the Attacks

A few days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a former homeless man was honored at a local breakfast in Santa Monica. In his acceptance speech, Nehasi Ronald Lee said that every homeless person on the streets of America can recall "the date, the day, the time and the event" that triggered their homelessness. After thanking the many people who helped him reclaim his life, he asked us to pray for the new homeless who would emerge from that crisp, sunny New York City morning -- Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

While most of us still had stone-loads in our guts, Lee was thinking long-term. No matter how much money is raised in relief efforts and distributed to families who lost loved ones in the buildings' collapse, other lives -- one step removed from the immediate tragedy, less obviously or directly the victims of the attacks but far closer to home for Los Angeles -- stand to be harmed by the tragedy. The precise number of people destroyed in the twin towers will eventually be known, but the true scale of the damage will never be calculated.

For millions of Americans, including 4.1 million Angelenos living in poverty or teetering at the brink, the attack on the World Trade Center imperiled the few gains that were made during America's years of "unparalleled prosperity." In Los Angeles, we see the evidence already. Nationally, airline layoffs have topped 100,000. The impact on workers at LAX is likely to be devastating. L.A. Alliance for a New Economy estimates that potentially thousands of service employees working at the airport will lose their living wage jobs including parking attendants, Smart Carte employees, security screeners, skycaps, baggage runners and food and retail employees. Those layoffs will mean losses of millions of dollars in family income. They also represent a major setback to L.A.'s fight for decent wages for all who work and the local struggle against poverty.

Just three weeks ago, L.A.'s fight against poverty was gaining traction. A county "food emergency" had been declared. An unprecedented fundraising effort on behalf of L.A.'s poor, The Weekend To End Poverty, was days from launch. But those efforts have been dwarfed by the tragedy, and understandably, local charitable dollars are being redirected. A young intern at the L.A. office of ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, told me she'd been going door-to-door last week but couldn't raise a dime. All the money was going to New York.

A true estimate of the damage of the World Trade Center attacks would need to encompass losses that cannot be measured in dollars and cents. Fragile gains made for fairness and justice have also been jeopardized. Racial profiling, a no-no just three weeks ago, has given way to new Justice Department legislation that would allow the government to indefinitely detain or deport immigrants -- including permanent resident immigrants -- on suspicion that they are linked to terrorist organizations.

Just three and a half weeks ago, Mexico's President Vicente Fox managed to push a new framework for addressing the status of millions of Mexican, Central and Latin American immigrants, many of whom pick our produce, bus our tables, prune our yards, clean our houses, and these days, sell American flags on our street corners. Fox put the issue squarely onto the American agenda. Now, it's a dream indefinitely deferred.

The terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center wanted to strike at the heart of the American economy. They did so by toppling two symbolic buildings in lower Manhattan. But in so doing, they also struck a blow to another vital economic organ -- less heralded, less symbolically prominent, but no less important -- the nation's low-wage work force. The attack's aftermath is all but certain to erode recent progress made in Los Angeles that had begun to insure these unglamorous, unprotected and underpaid workers’ self-sufficiency.

Unless we make an extraordinary effort, these victims of September 11 will remain invisible and unaided. But, as we have seen in the last three weeks, these are extraordinary times. A friend sent me an email the other day that said: "A broken heart has more room." How will we fill our broken hearts? Already we have seen an outpouring of human kindness that has made us tearful and proud. Can we also dedicate new space in our hearts for those whose low-profile struggle for survival will be made all the more perilous in the weeks and months to come?


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