Will Poverty in America Finally Move to the Front Burner Again?

Co-written with Jonathan Stone

The "P" word has been buried for decades - yes, John Edwards brought it up in the 2008 elections, but who wants to remember him? - as we have preferred to skirt around acknowledging its very existence and the searing impact it has on our nation. Instead, more clinical, broad and less emotional terms like "inequality" and "income disparity" have been used in our political discourse to express concern about this ongoing silent crisis.

In Robert Reich's recent film Inequality For All, we learned in graphic terms that many of us are just a hair away from falling into the financial abyss, and that America's 400 richest families have more wealth than the entire bottom 50% of the population combined. Also, we learned that the United States ranks 64th in the world in income inequality, with the largest divide between rich and poor in the developed world, according to Professor Reich. Indeed, it can be argued that our nation is approaching third world status. Meanwhile, the 1% are making out like bandits, while countless Americans continue to lose ground with flat wages that can't keep up with inflation, a condition with which we have been suffering since the early 1970's. We are working harder and longer for less and less, with diminishing income and eroding benefits continuing to drag us further down.

There is hope, however, that this issue may finally move to the front burner again - as it must - with the recent passing of the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson's introduction of his landmark "War on Poverty" legislation in his State of The Union speech in 1964, which led to the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. Johnson's clarion call had been inspired in part by John F. Kennedy's great interest in fighting poverty, as well as the work of Dr. Martin Luther King and his March On Washington in August 1963, which featured his timeless and impassioned "I Have A Dream" speech. Dr. King spoke of two Americas and the great chasm between rich and poor that divided our country, as well as his dream for his young children to grow up in a nation where they would be judged by their character and not the color of their skin. He aspired for us to become one nation and one people, living in harmony, and for all Americans to have equal opportunity. Today we once again honor Dr. King and his legacy, and we should take this day to reflect and recommit to his dream and to completing his work.

As we move through the second decade of the 21st Century, we continue to fight the War on Poverty, and despite early successes from 1964 to 1973 - when the number of those in poverty fell from 19% to 10% of our population - today we are once again losing ground, with that number climbing back up to 15%. Certainly, the recent recession has contributed to those growing numbers, along with the drastic, right wing driven cuts to critical government safety net programs like Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, housing assistance, student loans, school lunch programs, unemployment insurance, Head Start, legal aid for the poor, childcare and more. And let us not forget that cruel and draconian Sequester, which must be ended. The right wing has also been relentless in trying to slash and privatize our decades-old, highly successful institution of Social Security, which has allowed people to retire with dignity since the 1930's. All of these programs have helped millions to lead healthier and more productive lives, and they represent what a truly democratic society does to assist its most vulnerable citizens in their times of need. On the other hand, these assaults on the poor and diminishing middle class being perpetrated by those radical Tea Party extremists in Congress only serve to diminish us as a nation.

The classic 1962 book The Other America: Poverty In the United States by Michael Harrington brought national attention to this issue and was another catalyst for the War on Poverty. We came to know places like Appalachia and Mississippi, and other unfamiliar corners of the country that were suffering from this cancer. As poverty spread, it brought with it urban blight and decay to communities, along with drugs, gangs, violence, unemployment and countless lost opportunities for generations of young people. Many of us still remember the riots in Watts in California and Newark, New Jersey in the 1960's. I personally remember the Newark riots in 1967, as on one of those hot summer nights I was in East Harlem, taking photographs on a street filled with the aroma of pot smoke while a large crowd enjoyed Willie Bobo and his band on a Jazzmobile. I admit that I wondered that night why that community - which would become known as "El Barrio" years later - wasn't also in flames. My photos would appear the next day on PBS, but the rest of the media was focused on Newark, and was not interested in a positive story of an inner-city community peacefully enjoying a summer night together.

Poverty originally affected mainly urban and rural areas, but today it affects the suburbs and even more upscale communities. The specifics of what poverty leads to must become the focal point of the national discourse on this issue, especially when safety net programs are being slashed or funding for programs denied by a radical, ideologically-blinded sector of Congress. Such irresponsible acts tear at the very fabric and structure of society. Our government programs make us a civilized, humane society, and they exist - as does government itself - to make life better for its citizens. Working counter to that simple philosophy is the extreme right wing, backed with the aid of unlimited money flooding into shady political groups thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which has its fourth anniversary on January 21st. This catastrophic ruling has allowed a bought-off Congress to work only for that 1%, instead of the people who elected them. With the McCutcheon case now being deliberated in the Supreme Court, it is possible that even larger amounts of money will soon be poured into our electoral process, affecting the outcomes of elections. If McCutcheon v FEC goes the wrong way, it could eliminate spending limits for individuals that would allow them to directly donate as much as $5.9 million per election cycle to a single party or its candidate, according to an in-depth report on this issue by Public Citizen.

On January 28th, President Obama will deliver his sixth State of The Union speech. In it he will present his agenda for the year, and will no doubt talk yet again about the middle class and growing the economy for them. Here are some other critical issues that I hope he discusses in this pivotal speech:

  • Helping the 15% of the country now living in the grip of excruciating poverty, as well as the working poor, whose numbers continue to grow with those low-wage, dead-end jobs that force them to rely on food stamps and Medicaid to survive, while their employers pay little or no taxes and exploit them with long and irregular hours while we subsidize their greed.

  • Demanding that Congress pass that modest $10.10 per hour raise for minimum wage earners. It is estimated that 6.8 million would move out of poverty with such a raise in income alone, and that is money they would spend in their own communities, bolstering the economy.
  • Extending unemployment insurance. It has been estimated that for every $1.00 we spend on unemployment insurance, $1.61 is returned in economic activity. The President must take the right wing ideologues in Congress to task for refusing for the second time since Christmas to extend those benefits for those 1.3 million long-term unemployed Americans, including over 200,000 military veterans.
  • Protecting Social Security, as well as Medicare and Medicaid. Mr. Obama must assure us that he will agree to no deals that chip away at these earned benefits.
  • Proposing a national works project that will rebuild our infrastructure, including some 7,980 dilapidated, dangerous bridges across the country, along with our schools, libraries and other public structures.
  • Innovating in education, including building High School trade schools where young people can learn valuable skills that will help them earn a decent living, which would give the economy a tremendous boost.
  • Coming clean about the impending secret trade deal, The Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement - also known as "NAFTA on Steroids" - that will ship more jobs abroad and be a detriment to every aspect of our lives, placing us further under control of multi-national corporations. How will this horrific deal benefit the American people, Mr. President? Creating jobs - that pay a living wage, not a subsistence one - remains our national imperative first and foremost, not giveaways to a rapacious, greedy, selfish and amoral pack of corporatists.
  • And finally, passing immigration reform for those 11+ million undocumented immigrants living in the shadow of fear, who could then join the rest of us as contributing members of our society. Our nation and economy would benefit greatly.
  • According to an e-mail sent out recently by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), one week after unemployment benefits expired, state economies lost $400 million, and the overall cost to our economy could end up being close to $1 billion a week. It is interesting to note that under George W. Bush, unemployment benefits were extended five times with no strings attached. Senator - and Tea Party loon - Rand Paul (R-KY) now says that extending unemployment benefits actually does a "disservice" to workers, and his House counterpart and fellow right-wing nut-job Paul Ryan (R-WI) has said that safety net programs like unemployment are "...a hammock that ends up lulling people into lives of dependency and complacency." These so-called "public servants" believe that government assistance breeds a lazy, dependent population of "takers" - which is beyond ironic since it is coming from arguably some of the biggest takers around!

    In an address he delivered on the 50th Anniversary of President Johnson's "War On Poverty" State of the Union Address, Florida's Republican Senator Marco Rubio suggested that the fight against unemployment and poverty should be taken away from the federal government and turned over to the already cash-strapped states. He was also quick to remark that The War on Poverty has been a failure - so much for sticking to the facts. Let us remember that he is a potential candidate for President of the United States - I guess his motto would be "The buck stops anywhere but here." Not one productive idea has come from this crowd in years. Can you imagine what hell would break loose if they win control of the Senate - our only protection against the Tea Party's utter insanity taking America on a trip over the edge into economic oblivion?

    So, Mr. President, once again the ball is in your court. How will you use your bully pulpit this go around during the SOTU on January 28th? Wisely, I hope.