In a speech at the University of Kansas in February of the tumultuous year 1968, Robert F. Kennedy spoke of the plight of the poorest Americans, those struggling in devastated rural areas, and on Indian reservations and in the tenements and housing projects of the inner cities. He was blunt. “We must begin,” he said, “to end this disgrace of the other America.”
Addressing the myriad problems associated with poverty and joblessness was, in Kennedy’s view, “an urgent national priority.” But he went further. “Even if we act to erase material poverty,” he said, “there is another, greater task. It is to confront the poverty of satisfaction, purpose and dignity that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.”
Those were the words of a United States senator two days before he announced officially that he was running for president. Yes, there actually was a time when mainstream politicians were not afraid to speak of our obligation to extend a hand of help and friendship to those at the bottom of the economic heap, the individuals and families locked in a long and wearying fight to make it from one difficult day to the next.
We abandoned the fight against poverty and it’s been growing like an infection in an untreated wound. It’s as much of a disgrace as it was in Kennedy’s era but the willingness of mainstream politicians to speak out candidly and forcefully against it seems as old-fashioned as carbon paper and rotary phones.
America should be ashamed.
Nearly 50 million people in this country, the richest in the world, are poor. Another 50 million, the near-poor, are just a notch or two above the official poverty line. They can feel the awful flames of poverty licking at their heels. Those two groups, the poor and the near-poor, make up nearly one-third of the entire American population.
And what are our mainstream politicians doing? When they’re not hammering the poor, mocking them, waging war on the threadbare safety net programs that help stave off destitution, they’re running as fast as they can away from the issue of poverty and from the poor themselves, running like sprinters chasing Olympic gold.
No one wants to be too closely identified with the poor.
Back in February, Mitt Romney breezily said, “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there.” His campaign’s focus, he said, was on “middle-income Americans.” (He would later say his comments were a “misstatement.”)
President Obama established a task force on the middle class in the White House. Like most mainstream politicians, he talks about the middle class incessantly while going out of his way to avoid mentioning poverty.
Newt Gingrich’s vision of helping the poor was to roll back child labor laws and have children work as janitors in their schools. “This is how people rise in America,” he said. “They learn to work.”
The Republican Party is obsessive in its efforts to hack away at programs that help keep people out of poverty, like Medicare and Social Security, or that provide some sustenance to those who are already poor, like Medicaid, food stamps and cash benefits. Gingrich mocked Obama as the “food stamp president.”
This behavior is insidious. It breeds not just neglect but indifference to the poor. It encourages the already strong tendency to blame poor people themselves for their financial straits. It helps to cast them as some kind of debilitating, parasitical “other” and all but insures that they are kept out of the nation’s mainstream. It makes people ashamed to be poor, and that shame keeps them silent and powerless.
Our strenuous efforts to keep the poor out of sight and out of mind succeeds in keeping us blind to the many tragic components of this spreading scourge. One in every five American children is poor, and one in three black children. Their poverty is inextricably linked to their curtailed life chances – their difficulties in school and in finding work, the increased likelihood that they will become involved in the drug trade, the sex trade, gangs and violent crime. And it is linked to their heightened chances of dying prematurely from any number of causes, from disease to accidents to homicide.
When thinking about poverty in America, it’s important to keep in mind that not very far below the surface there is always the toxic undercurrent of race. So you get Rick Santorum telling Republican primary voters in Iowa, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.” And you get Hillary Clinton, in her campaign against Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, bragging to USA Today about her support among “hard-working Americans, white Americans.”
Somehow this has to stop. One in every 15 Americans – and one in ten American children – are mired in the suffocating muck of deep poverty, which means they are trying to live on incomes of $11,000 a year or less for a family of four. An astonishing 45 million Americans are on food stamps.
And yet no one in high places thinks this is a problem serious enough to address with any sense of urgency. Very few seem willing to address it at all.
Which means it is up to the poor themselves and their advocates outside of government to bring this catastrophe to the attention of the wider public. This needs to be done loudly, dramatically, provocatively and relentlessly. Marches, sit-ins, camp-outs, camp-ins – all forms of direct action, including creative new ones – are needed if the current intolerable rates of poverty and joblessness are ever to be substantially reduced.
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. explained why it was essential at times for people to resort to demonstrations and protests, why direct action was necessary rather than tactics that were less disruptive. The purpose of nonviolent direct action, he said, was to bring attention to important issues that the wider community was stubbornly unwilling to confront. The idea is to so dramatize the issue, said King, “that it can no longer be ignored.”
That is what’s needed with the burning issue of poverty in the United States. The nation’s top public officials have made it clear that they have no interest in coming up with solutions that are big enough and bold enough to end the interrelated crises of poverty and joblessness. Without dramatic new initiatives, the suffering will only continue.
Our view of poverty has been turned upside down in my lifetime. On a sunny spring day in 1964 Lyndon Johnson delivered the commencement address at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. More than 80,000 people were in attendance at the school’s athletic stadium and the address would come to be known as Johnson’s Great Society speech.
Johnson gave his audience a view of America’s ideals writ large. “For a century,” he said, “we labored to settle and to subdue a continent. For half a century, we called on unbounded invention and untiring industry to create an order of plenty for all of our people.
“The challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.”
He called upon Americans to build a society that was more than just rich and powerful. He envisioned a nation that demanded an end to poverty and racial injustice. He spoke movingly of a society in which the people would be more concerned with “the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.”
What was really different about the speech was the way in which it was received. It was, as Johnson’s biographer Robert Dallek tells us, “a great hit.” The audience was aware of the importance of the new president’s landmark address and seemed fully in support of it. The speech was interrupted 29 times by applause.
Now, nearly half a century later, with the ranks of the poor surging and much of the nation hobbled economically, officeholders can barely find the courage to acknowledge that poverty even exists.
I had lunch with the great historian Howard Zinn back in 2009, just a few weeks before he died. Zinn felt that there was no reason ever to tolerate abuse and injustice, that there was always something that could be done. Among other things, we talked about the plight of ordinary people in an economy rigged to overwhelmingly benefit the rich and powerful. “If there is going to be change, real change,” Zinn said, “It will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves. That’s how change happens.”
I nodded in agreement. The labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement (and later the environmental and gay rights movements) were all developed by people without a lot of obvious power. They were loaded instead with energy and intelligence, and a fiery, unshakable commitment to their goals and ideals.
Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
With that in mind, it is time for the poor and the jobless and the underemployed to take matters into their own hands.