On January 8. 1964, President Lyndon Johnson in his State of the Union address declared an “unconditional” war on poverty. It’s instructive to recall what he said:
“Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope — some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.”
“Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support. But this attack, to be effective, must also be organized at the State and the local level and must be supported and directed by State and local efforts.”
“Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper — in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.”
LBJ was spot on. Poverty is a national problem requiring a national solution. And the lack of jobs and money are symptomatic of a broader and deeper problem common to distressed communities. Finally, he was right to say that we need a broad based approach that addresses and ameliorates all the elements that contribute to poverty.
As a (much) younger man, I worked for a couple of community action programs in the early and mid-1970s. We organized people to compel enforcement of local housing codes and to ensure that the school lunch program was actually feeding low-income kids. We dealt with single parent families to try to assist them with obtaining child care so that the parent could work.
From the 1980’s through 2006 I participated in numerous local and state political campaigns. If you ever want to know what’s going on in your community, run for office or help someone who is running. A state senate district that I ran in contained both the poorest and wealthiest residents in my city. The differences between the haves and have nots could not have been more stark.
During that time I was also a public school teacher, teaching a cross-section of the kids in a small Massachusetts town. Again, we had kids from so-called “well-off” families as well as kids from economically distressed families. It was a challenge, in the 1980s dawning of the “Age of Austerity,” to find and dedicate increasingly scarce resources so that I and my colleagues could provide a quality education to kids. And if that wasn’t challenge enough, finding resources to meet the unique and special needs of some kids became nearly impossible over time. As time went on, the wealthier members of the community to place their kids in private schools, creating a tiered educational system where some are big winners, others big losers, with the rest falling somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.
In other words, the rich get richer, the poor get screwed, and the rest struggle to make ends meet.
However, the depth and breadth of the schism between the rich and poor was never more apparent than when I started RICLAPP. Year after year, our client numbers have grown exponentially, with each client having on average 2.5 issues. And these are real issues that directly impact the subsistence level of a client’s quality of life, and other times represents a threat to life itself.
See, the real lie is that poor people, who by definition have less money, have fewer problems; to the contrary, they have more. Low income people have housing issues, job related issues, public benefits issues, domestic relations issues, educational issues for their kids, and that’s the short list. Can anyone seriously think that life issues that most of us too often take for granted don’t have legal implications for our most vulnerable neighbors?
For example, we’re dealing with multiple housing issues in one town that, until I’m ready to identify it, I’ll call the “hell-mouth.” The landlords and their management agents have failed to properly maintain the premises, and then have acted like thugs if a tenant complains. The tenant then fears that s/he’ll be evicted, which may result in the loss of a housing voucher, and once the voucher is lost it’s gone for good. The landlord holds the power, relegating the tenant to the subordinate position, who then lives in fear of reprisal if s/he reports a housing violation. As a result, the tenant (and as a governmental through a housing subsidy) pays good money to continue to live in substandard housing, even if doing so poses a threat to the tenant or his/her child(ren).
And that’s just one tiny example of the tsunami of need in Rhode Island. Our clients have had to deal with a court system that they don’t understand, a social security system that all but broke, a state system that is sometimes unresponsive, and a community that often treats poor people as though they were lepers.
The poor among us have often been “invisible.” I have a medical colleague who meets the medical needs of poor kids. He tried to figure out how and why society could let people exist in horrible conditions and came to the only conclusion that he could – poor people, even the little kids, are “unsexy.”
I don’t want to belabor the point – suffice it to say that the number of poor, increased by the erosion of the middle class, is expanding at a frightening pace. That’s why articles like the one that appeared in Forbes, http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2014/09/16/us-poverty-rate-is-still-14-5-but-yes-the-war-on-poverty-worked/, which declared that the War on Poverty worked, is is such balderdash and beneath contempt.
One of the assertions made in the article is that all those generous benefits that poor receive aren’t counted in determining whether they are, in fact, poor. For example, the author states that SNAP benefits have a great economic value to the recipients. He doesn’t disclose, or perhaps even knows or cares, that SNAP benefits were severely cut in the last budget go-around, and were possibly to be eliminated in the last “farm bill” enacted by Congress (thankfully that didn’t happen). Even when fully funded SNAP benefits were often insufficient to provide food for the month.
It’s clowns like the Forbes writer who fudge the facts and cloud the reality. So here is my analysis of the War on Poverty after fifty years: contrary to winning, we have lost the War on Poverty. If this “War” was a prize-fight, they’d have stopped it on a TKO in the 1980’s. Instead we pretend to providing the proverbial “safety net” while ignoring the reality – too many people are needlessly suffering because of government and community inaction and indifference.
In 1961, Robert Kennedy said, “… I believe that, as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil. Government belongs wherever evil needs an adversary and there are people in distress who cannot help themselves.” From that time to this, poverty remains an evil against which people are helpless. However, government is no longer evil’s adversary leaving more and more people in distress.
Each of our local communities and the state as a whole has an obligation to act on behalf of those of us who are less fortunate. Agencies such as RICLAPP has a duty to stand with those who are often marginalized, and we will do our job for as long as we can.
In future posts I will outline the problem of poverty in Rhode Island, not merely in the abstract but I will attempt to put flesh and bones on our clients, and have them tell their stories, anonymously because they fear the stigma of coming forward. Hopefully through this exercise the reader will come to understand the challenges that our distressed communities face, the the pain experienced by our clients, and the categorical imperative that each of us has to make this place a little more gentle for those with the least among us.