Atlanta, Symbol Of The New American Poverty

The recession of 2008 created a new population of poor in the U.S., concentrated in the outskirts of once thriving urban areas. In Atlanta, poverty has risen by 122%.

A homeless shelter in Atlanta
A homeless shelter in Atlanta
Stéphane Bussard

ATLANTAIn Gwinnett County, just 20 minutes outside of Atlanta, the small town of Norcross proudly displays comfortable homes that suggest economic comfort and success. But close to the center of town, a railway track separates two worlds. On one side are multinational companies and their well-paid employees. On the other are those who fight every day to eat and keep a roof above their heads.

The expression “wrong side of the tracks” seems more than appropriate.

In the November darkness, dozens of people are waiting for the doors to open at the Norcross Cooperative Ministry Greg Ellis Center, a non-profit organization offering assistance to the poor.

Falisha Lucas, who bears a tattoo on her neck, was just released from jail, where she was held for 10 days. That’s all she’ll say about it. “Because of my criminal record, I can’t find a job,” she says. “It’s as if I were the worst person in the world. I’ve made mistakes, but they have to give me a chance.”

The 34-year-old African-American was born on Chicago’s South Side and is now alone with her two children, ages 17 and 15. After a quarrel with her landlord, she was left homeless. So she has come to ask for emergency assistance. Although she lives beneath the poverty line, she keeps faith. “These difficult times make me stronger. Not like rich people. I know the survival techniques.”

In the Greg Ellis Center offices, where a sculpture titled “Que pasa?” hangs from the wall, several volunteers are dealing with the most urgent cases. Shirley Cabe is juggling cases. A family has just arrived. Because none of their beds are available, the center’s director makes an emergency call to different hotels, using vouchers given as donations.

“There are many single mothers,” Cabe says. “They have suffered domestic violence or lost their homes. Most residents don’t have health insurance. Proof that their situations are unstable? In a nearby elementary school, 90% of the pupils benefit from a free meal program.”

Atlanta is symbolic

All of the U.S. is affected. Atlanta’s metropolitan area alone has seen its number of poor — defined by an income of $11,000 per year for an individual or $23,000 for a family of four — rise by 122% between 2000 and 2010, becoming the semi-urban area with the country’s highest poverty rate.

In one decade, poverty has increased by 5.9% in the suburbs and only by 1.7% in town, evidence that cities are gaining strength while outlying areas suffer. Midtown Atlanta is now a place for “hipsters.” At the same time, if Georgia’s population has grown by 1.48% between 2009 and 2011, its number of homeless has risen by 6.2%. One in four children in Georgia (28.8%) live in a household threatened by lack of food. In New York, half a million children are undernourished.

Mark Rank, professor at Washington University in St. Louis, says that than 40% of Americans between ages 25 and 60 live in poverty for at least one year during their life. “Even though poverty is still highly stigmatized, it has become a common occurrence,” the professor says. “Our poverty rate is almost twice the European rate.”

There are many interlocked reasons for this. Job loss, health problems and no medical coverage, seizure of property and, most of all, low wages. Tom Merkel, director of Impact Group, one of the hundreds of non-profit organizations fighting poverty in Gwinnett County, cautions against clichés. A former senior mortgage director at General Electric, he says the typical profile of a homeless person for a long time was a 40-something man with alcohol, drug or mental health problems.

Children are hardest hit

“It’s changed,” he says. “The homeless have become mostly young single mothers — who are often domestic abuse victims — with several children, sometimes from different fathers. The average age of the homeless here is 6 years old.”

Though he is not a partisan, Merkel doesn’t believe benefits should be granted without recipients offering something in return. “We aim to make our ‘customers’ aware of their responsibilities,” he says. When people seek help from his organization, they must have a job or be looking for one and agree to a strict plan of living, including giving back 10% of their earnings and taking a course on how to manage their finances.

About 20% of Impact Group’s budget is financed by the government, and the other 80% comes from private donations. It delivers surprising results. “Ninety percent of our customers emerge from poverty,” Merkel says. Some behaviors do, however, surprise him. “Some of the people who come here lost their job, even though they were making $600,000 per year. They didn’t save anything and are now deep in debt. Because they paid taxes for a long time, they think the government should help them.”

The great challenge, Merkel says, is to make people aware of their responsibilities. “But our society has changed a lot. People want everything straight away. The United States wasn’t built on such principles.”

Kiara Tate, a 15-year-old student at the local Norcross High School, has never had the privilege to live comfortably. At a nearby Burger King, she puts the world to rights with her friends Tamia Banks and Tebrianne Jones. When she was seven, she spent two months in a homeless shelter.

“It was tough. We sometimes had to get up at 4 a.m.,” she recalls. She explains how jobless people in Norcross are called “Js”, for junkies. But she welcomes efforts by President Barack Obama to help the middle class. “He comes from there, and he knows what he’s talking about. When Mitt Romney talks about middle class, what does he know? We are right at the bottom.” Tamia, fired up, adds: “For him, we’re just scum.”

U.S. gets by on a culture of philanthropy

In Sandy Springs, the wealthy suburb of northeast Atlanta with 100,000 inhabitants, two elderly white women — Anne Morgan, 92, and Barbara Gretts, 82 — embody the monied middle class. They have come to make a donation to the Community Assistance Center (CAC) for the first time.

“I have been blessed,” Gretts says. “God has been generous with us. It’s time to share.” Nearby, Linda, a volunteer, is arriving with a bus full of elderly people who have been particularly hard hit by poverty. They will receive supplies for the rest of the month.

CAC director Tamara Carrera empathizes with the 800 families her organization serves and is particularly critical of the American economy. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 is not enough, she says. “It has to be between $16 and $20 to be able to live here. That’s why people have two or three different jobs. Some families, where parents and children already live in cramped conditions, end up being forced to rent a room.”

The paradox, she adds, is that these people work in essential but undervalued jobs in Atlanta but have been priced out of living close to where they work. “They have to live elsewhere,” she says. “Rents are at a minimum of $900 for a two-bedroom place. Unaffordable when you earn $1,200 per month.”

Worse still, the American social state is a lot less generous than in Europe. “What allows the country to survive is the Americans’ incredible culture of philanthropy,” notes Carrera, whose organization was created jointly action by a Christian church and a synagogue. “Non-profit organizations such as ours are often a lot more creative than the state. But they don’t make up for the absence of a social safety net in certain regions of the country.”

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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