Commentary: South Carolina's history of poverty is 'mortifying'

Lost in all the justifiable outrage over Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer's "stray animals" remarks and his suggestion that we starve poor children was an intriguing comment: He said when he was on reduced-price lunch, he was "mortified" to present his ticket because others around him would know he was getting aid.

Does that mean poor people should be ashamed of who they are? Or does it simply mean they should fear this lieutenant governor who wants to be governor?

What else is on Mr. Bauer's agenda for the poor? Or on that of other gubernatorial candidates, for that matter? The Palmetto State has a large number of poor people, many of whom work but make little money. They're not poor by choice. And the list of those who need help in this tough economy is growing by the day.

At the risk of being confused with a stray animal, I unashamedly admit that I was on the free lunch program during my days in public school. And — please, don't tell Andre — I enjoyed every one of those free lunches. As the youngest of 11 children raised by a single mother, I needed those meals. I didn't have to sit in class hungry and inattentive, so I had the optimal opportunity to learn.

There were many others who were in the same predicament as I who today serve this state and their communities as doctors, lawyers, bankers, chefs, you name it. Despite being poor, their parents urged them to apply themselves in school and supported them the best they could.

Mr. Bauer's careless — or should I say couldn't-care-less — comments are an affront to every parent and child who might not come from financially stable homes and might have no other choice but to accept free- or reduced-lunch (about 60 percent of all S.C. students do) but who embrace education as a way to overcome their circumstances. The fact is lots of poor parents are involved in their kids' education.

Unfortunately, there also are many students who aren't achieving or behaving as they should in class because of the lack of parental involvement, which helps students complete homework, stay in school, pass exams, make better grades and be more attentive. Parental involvement is a must.

But it's ignorant to assume that every poor family wants something for nothing or that every parent who doesn't attend a parent-teacher conference is slothful. Some are working multiple jobs. Some of the state's poorest workers board a bus leaving Hampton or Jasper County before dawn headed for menial jobs on Hilton Head Island; they don't get back home until long after dark. They're forced to leave kids to shuffle off to school and return home unattended. Their problem: living in a community that has limited jobs.

Some say we shouldn't focus on Mr. Bauer's poor choice of words, but instead consider his larger point. But that point was lost amid other troubling messages in his insensitive remarks:

— "We don't make you take a drug test. We ought to. We don't even make you show up to your child's parent-teacher conference meeting or to the PTA meeting." No doubt, parents should attend conferences. But the thought of Andre Bauer — or anyone else — suggesting my mother needed to take a drug test because she lacked income is insulting.

— "My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better." So, poor people don't have the capacity to think for themselves? They're less than human; for goodness sake, we can't allow them to breed. Such rhetoric is as old as the Old South itself. It has been used for centuries — dating back to slavery — to invoke fear and anger in an attempt to maintain the status quo and justify prevailing inequalities and injustices.

We're not talking about a slip of the tongue or a stray word. Mr. Bauer's words — buoyed by direction from his grandmother, which he apparently took to heart — were intentional. He wants to win a primary in a crowded field; he's appealing to a voting element in his party that he thinks will not only embrace such a message but vote for the messenger.

In our state, it's important to understand the plight of those locked in poverty. Many of the problems the poor face — including, to some extent, the lack of parental involvement in schools — grew out of our state's poor history of taking care of all its people.

For generations, our state purposely didn't educate all its people. Prior to 1860, it was the richest in the nation because of ill-gotten wealth produced by slavery. Emancipation plunged the state into poverty, leaving an economy built off the land. The state didn't educate its people because if it did, who would work the land? When we became a textile-dependent state, the same held true: How were you going to force an educated populace to go to work in the mills?

For generations, we fostered a culture that didn't value education and made it clear that certain people shouldn't expect it. That held our entire state back. Because we failed to educate all our people — even today, where you live dictates the quality of education you get — our state lags on the prosperity meter. We don't have the wealth we need. But we have lots of people who have poor health, poor jobs and poor educational aspirations.

We need to get students excited about education so we develop a workforce able to supply skilled labor to the many industries that have turned to knowledge-based and high-tech production.

What's the answer? Instead of looking down on students and parents on public aid, let's build a system that encourages and prepares parents to support students. Make sure all students have high-quality teachers and schools, no matter where they live.

That would be a lot more helpful and a lot less mortifying than Mr. Bauer's punitive remedies.