Poverty Unmasked at Halloween Commentator Desiree Cooper is getting ready for Halloween in her Detroit neighborhood. She lives in an exclusive area just across the street from one of Detroit's many poor neighborhoods. Every Halloween, it seems like children and adults from the poor neighborhood come to trick-or-treat at her house.
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Poverty Unmasked at Halloween

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Poverty Unmasked at Halloween

Poverty Unmasked at Halloween

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Just two weeks left before Halloween. That's two weeks to make a costume, stock up on candy, carve the pumpkins and decorate the front of your house with cobwebs and cardboard tombstones. For commentator Desiree Cooper, preparing for Halloween in her Detroit neighborhood can be even more complicated and serious.

DESIREE COOPER:

When people think of Detroit, they don't think of 20-foot, hand-carved fireplaces imported from the Black Forest or of mansions so large that a family can live comfortably in the carriage house. But that's what the houses are like in Detroit's Palmer Woods. When we moved in 20 years ago, we became the second generation in my husband's family to live there. In most cities, a neighborhood like ours would be segregated in the exclusive part of town. But in Detroit, Palmer Woods exists just across Woodward Avenue from one of the city's poorest areas.

I wasn't quite prepared for my first Halloween in Palmer Woods. I thought I knew most of the neighborhood kids, and I bought what I thought was enough candy for them. That night my husband took off with our two trick-or-treaters while I hung back to greet the monsters at the door.

Nothing could have prepared me for the deluge. On our narrow, curbless streets, countless rickety cars and jam-packed vans began to creep, stopping at every corner to spill out the revelers. Some were children, but many more were adults who hadn't bothered to put on a mask or even paint their faces. They simply crowded the children from the doorstep with outstretched dingy pillowcases and mumbled, `Trick or treat.' Sometimes they would offer me a thin excuse like, `My baby's in the car; it got too cold.' Frequently they would hold up not one but two sacks for me to fill, saying, `One's for me, and one's for my daughter who's sick.'

It would have been one thing if it had happened only a few times or even for a few minutes on those frosty October evenings. But for the 20 years that I've been in Palmer Woods, it's happened every Halloween, a steady stream of the poor coming in from sundown to late evening.

Over the years I've had to reinvent Halloween. I handed out health pamphlets or voting information along with the candy. It seemed an insult to give people my own age a blow pop or Hershey bar. As a nation, we're used to coming to each other's aid in the face of a hurricane, an earthquake or a war. But I can't help wonder what it would take to inspire a similar outpouring for the people who visit my doorstep on Halloween, victims of the creeping disaster of poverty.

This year Detroit became the nation's poorest large city. Nearly 34 percent of its residents live below the federal poverty line. Miami, Newark and Atlanta are also in the top five, and last year the poorest large city was Cleveland. Across America's big cities the face of poverty looks remarkably the same. They are young and they are black.

At least once a year I have to come face to face with the reality of poverty in America. Every Halloween I give what I can, but no matter how much I buy, I always run out. I apologetically close the door, but long after the lights are out, the ghosts keep on knocking.

BLOCK: Desiree Cooper is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press.

ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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