Please note I have a new phone number...


Alan Maki

Alan Maki
Doing research at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas

It's time to claim our Peace Dividend

It's time to claim our Peace Dividend

We need to beat swords into plowshares.

We need to beat swords into plowshares.

A program for real change...

What we need is a "21st Century Full Employment Act for Peace and Prosperity" which would make it a mandatory requirement that the president and Congress attain and maintain full employment.

"Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens"

- Ben Franklin

Let's talk...

Let's talk...

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Poverty's Up, Yet Still on the Back Burner

Poverty's Up, Yet Still on the Back Burner

By Bob Herbert
Policy Shop
August 22, 2012

A guest at the St. John's Lutheran Church Freeze
Shelter in Atlanta, Georgia. Flickr/Greg Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.