Susan Dalgety: If Trump thinks poverty is over, he should visit Alabama

The Trump administration has declared an end to the US war of poverty, which began in 1964. even though a third of people in part of Alabama have hookworm, a parasite associated with the poorest developing countries, writes Susan Dalgety.
Hookworms penetrate the skin, are carried to the lungs, go through the respiratory tract to the mouth, are swallowed, and eventually reach the small intestine. (Picture: Centers for Disease Control)Hookworms penetrate the skin, are carried to the lungs, go through the respiratory tract to the mouth, are swallowed, and eventually reach the small intestine. (Picture: Centers for Disease Control)
Hookworms penetrate the skin, are carried to the lungs, go through the respiratory tract to the mouth, are swallowed, and eventually reach the small intestine. (Picture: Centers for Disease Control)

You can drive for miles through the Deep South of America without meeting another vehicle.

Cotton and maize fields stretch as far as the eye can see, punctuated only by small wooden churches declaring ‘Jesus Lives’, and sparse communities of mobile homes and two-roomed shacks.

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The air is hot and sticky. The sweet tea, icy-cold and life-giving. The welcome as warm as the sun that beats down relentlessly on the parched land.

“Hello y’all. Kin ah help you?” is the usual, heartfelt greeting.

The deepest of the Deep South states – Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana – remind me of southern Africa. The red soil. The maize fields. The mosquitoes. The heat. The poverty.

If poverty is relative, then the poor in the Cotton States have a lot in common with the poor of rural South Africa.

Families living on welfare in Mississippi are as distant from the Upper East Side as their peers in the Eastern Cape are from the rich suburbs of Cape Town.

Only a few months ago, scientists from the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine revealed that more than one in three people they tested in a poor part of Alabama had hookworm.

This filthy parasite thrives in extreme poverty and is particularly partial to raw sewage. It is usually only found in developing countries. It should not find a home in the country that gave the world the iPhone and put the first man on the moon.

There are many reasons for this entrenched deprivation. Slavery, then segregation created a racial and economic divide that has outlived the civil rights revolution of the sixties, just as the hookworm has clung on in the poorest communities.

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Globalisation has seen jobs disappear to China, which goes some way to explaining Donald Trump’s continued popularity among white voters in the Deep South, as top pollster Nate Silver pointed out a few weeks ago.

“The 10 states where Trump’s numbers are closest to where they were in January 2017 include Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.

“All five states have large black populations that overwhelmingly vote Democratic and white populations that overwhelmingly vote Republican.”

But wait, perhaps there is hope after all. Two weeks ago, the Trump administration declared that the war against poverty, started by President Lyndon B Johnson in 1964, was officially over. Trump and his economic advisers have decided that there is only a tiny number of ‘really poor’ people, and the best way to help them is to boost the economy as a whole.

Never mind that 43 million Americans live below the poverty line, with many of them in the Deep South.

As the President said the other day, “Just remember, what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

Tell that to an eight-year-old child with hookworm in her intestines, sucking her lifeblood, Mr President.

We left the south for Kentucky after a sweat-soaked, sleepless night on tornado watch. A common occurrence in Nashville, which locals treat with equanimity.

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Not so this Scot, who nervously followed every twitch of the National Weather Service Twitter feed until after 2am, when the tornado watch was suspended.

Everything is bigger in America. Inequality. Highways that stretch out to nowhere. A deli sandwich that can feed a family of four. Pick-up trucks the size of our campervan.

Even the weather. Humidity regularly hits 80 per cent and temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8C). Storms are biblical and frequent.

So, it is perhaps fitting that America gave the world the greatest sportsman of the 20th century.

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1942, and threw his first, legal punch at the age of 12.

The power of Ali was not that he was the only boxer to win the world heavyweight championship three times, or that he risked his career to make a stand against the Vietnam War. It wasn’t his philanthropy or his humanitarianism that made him stand out.

It was that he was the first African American man to rise up and declare that, not only was he great, he was the greatest. And not only was he pretty, he was the prettiest.

“Before Ali, black was considered sub-human,” says Ali’s personal physician in a film shown at the Muhammed Ali Centre in downtown Louisville.

“He said, black is beautiful. I am great.”

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And in the same exhibit, the playwright Bonnie Greer explains that before Ali, African Americans were told not to talk too loudly, not to draw attention to themselves.

“Then along came Ali, young, handsome, fast and pretty.”

The centre opened in 2005, 11 years before Ali died, and it is far more than a tribute to his glorious boxing career.

He was determined that the centre would help unleash the Ali in all of us, that it would inspire people everywhere to be as great as they can be, contradictions and all.

Next to the grainy black and white footage of him knocking out Sonny Liston to take his first world championship is a colourful collection of artefacts from Muslim countries across the globe.

Ali is pictured holding hands with Mother Teresa and marching in solidarity with Malcom X when he campaigned for black supremacy.

There is an interview of him, as a young man, proclaiming that a woman’s only role is to be a wife and mother, playing next to one of him, much older and wiser, arguing for gender equality.

He was as complex as he was beautiful, as contradictory as he was courageous.

“All of my boxing, all of my running around, all of my publicity, was just the start of my life,” he said in 1991. “Now my life is really starting. Fighting injustice, fighting racism, fighting crime, fighting illiteracy, fighting poverty ...”

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He fought his best fight, but one lone man, not even the greatest, cannot defeat the racism, injustice and poverty that plagues this country. Or does it? After all, as Trump says, just because you see something, or read about it, doesn’t mean it is real.

America’s new reality is what Trump says it is – Putin is a good guy ... I did not have sex with that woman ... poverty is history.

Welcome to America 2018, where the clocks strike 13.