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.