On January 17th, 2013, Tavis Smiley moderated a panel of public intellectuals on the topic of poverty in America – a topic so rarely discussed, you’d think it was a peripheral issue rather than the root cause (and consequence) of so many other hazards. It isn’t taken seriously. Just another set of statistics contorted to fit one’s political agenda. However, at a moment when the country is considering further devastating cuts to health and human services, job training, food stamps and education, this conversation is one we must have more often and with a great deal of seriousness. Click here to watch it on C-SPAN
Human poverty does exist in the US - in spades. But unlike poverty of years past, poverty is now sublimated. Federal Food Stamp and free and reduced lunch programs shroud poverty from view. The poor stand next to you in the grocery line, and next to their classmates at the school lunch line. Because the cheapest food also happens to be the unhealthiest, malnourishment is more often draped in obesity rather than emaciation. The poor live off the beaten path and in neighborhoods we’re not supposed to go to ’cause they’re “bad.” There aren’t bread lines in the streets or folks in overcrowded welfare or unemployment offices – they are online, call-in only. The poor are rarely found lobbying at the Capitols, but they are plentiful in morgues and prisons and in the military.
As writer and artist John Berger noted, “The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied, but written off as trash.”
The day after Tavis Smiley hosted that panel discussion, President Obama was inaugurated on MLK Holiday and on MLKs Bible [see Cornel West’s take on this at minute 25-30 in the program]. Though he spoke about gay rights, about the rights of girls being allowed to succeed, and on the vital issue of UNIVERSAL SUFFERAGE, Obama failed to mention Organized Labor, which along with education and Social Security, is among the most successful anti-poverty programs in the U.S. Josh Eidelson discussed this in an article for Truthout.
Obama made a point about investing in schools in order to create good “workers,” but he failed to note that we then suppress their abilities to organize so they can, in turn, bargain dignified wages and benefits for their labors. As union membership rose from the 1950s through the 1970s and then declined from the 1970s to current day, the number of Americans living in poverty mimicked the rise and fall.
Then two days after Beyoncé lip-synced the National Anthem at the ceremonial swearing-in, and the sycophantic press got over their post-ball hangovers, the Big Story of the day was that union membership in the US had dropped to a 90+ year low. Many offered their reasons for why this is so, but few if any dug into the correlations between poverty and unionization, from the Industrial era until now.
The current legislative session in Iowa now must decide what to do with the billion dollar surplus earned from years of spending cuts to essential programs like court services, unemployment offices, jobs training programs and many others. Instead of using this opportunity to help Iowa’s poor (an all-time high number of Iowans currently receive food stamps), Governor Branstad has proposed sweeping commercial and industrial property tax reform. But the problem with his vision of reform is the poor do not own commercial and industrial property. There are no tax credits for living in a car, a shelter, a family or friend’s sofa, or in a pay-by-the-week motel.
The Iowa legislature should be recognized for its attempts last year to address poverty by passing legislation to increase the Earned Income Tax Credit which targets poor workers, and by supplementing Iowa food banks with $500,000 in state assistance. Unfortunately those attempts were in vain as Governor Branstad vetoed both (he actually vetoed EITC twice last year).
Partisans of all sides could possibly agree that it’s not that the poor shouldn’t “get” government subsidies/assistance; it’s that they shouldn’t “need” it. But the realities of our economic model that repress workers’ rights to organize result in enormous human need. But an economy is man-made. Policies are set forth through our public and private institutions where poor people are being told they have to work harder, and they are going to have to do with less.
The Iowa legislature’s number one priority in dealing with the budget surplus should be to address poverty and health and human services. Women and children make up the largest segment falling into poverty. One in four children under the age of five is food insecure. Poverty’s impact on children is immeasurable – how do you calculate immorality? Quantify psychological destruction? Measure the violence of broken families? You can only describe it, and in doing so your heart should break if indeed there is a soul still in you that hasn’t been erased by bean counting economic theories.
To find out more about Tavis Smiley’s poverty summit, go to Afuturewithoutpoverty.com or look up: #povertymustend on Twitter. At the website, you can sign a letter to the White House that demands the President give a major public policy address on eradication of poverty in America and convene a White House conference on the eradication of poverty.