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.
Bob Herbert is a senior fellow at Demos, a New York-based policy organization. He had an 18-year career at the The New York Times as an op-ed columnist, writing about politics, urban affairs and social trends in a twice-weekly column. This article first appeared on Demos’ blog Policyshop.net.