The War on the Poor
April 21, 2010
(Michael Seltzer is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In his last post, he spoke with Gloria Steinem about the economic downturn and its impact on women and nonprofit organizations that serve and support women and girls.)
In the midst of a recession that has seen millions join the ranks of the poor (the "new poor," as Geoffrey Canada, CEO of Harlem’s Children Zone, calls them), one might expect to encounter more empathy for low-income Americans.
One group, however, isn't that sympathetic -- Tea Party members and conservative radio and television commentators. Indeed, to hear them tell it, concern for the poor, whether they struggle to make ends meet in the hollows of Appalachia or the barrios of South-Central Los Angeles, leads to one thing and one thing only: Big Government. And Big Government, as any Tea Partier will tell you, is the cause of our economic and political woes.
In an eye-opening front-page article ("Poll Finds Tea Party Backers Wealthier and More Educated," April 14, 2010), New York Times reporters Kate Zernike and Megan Thee-Brenan shared some fascinating Tea Party data. According to a Times poll, a majority of self-identified Tea Party rank-and-filers said the policies of the Obama administration favor the poor, while 25 percent felt the administration favors blacks over whites (compared with 11 percent of the general public).
Such views are buttressed by the rantings of a small but vocal segment of the chattering class. The right-wing radio commentator Glenn Beck, for example, recently launched a campaign to vilify well-respected political scientist and City University of New York professor Frances Fox Piven for her work on behalf of the nation's poor.
As Peter Edelman and Barbara Ehrenreich explain in an article in the Nation ("What Really Happened to Welfare," April 12, 2010), Piven and her late husband, Richard Cloward, hatched a "plot" some forty-five years ago in the pages of the Nation to get civil rights groups, social service agencies, and others to enroll large numbers of the eligible poor in the Aid to Families With Dependent Children program. The idea, says Beck, was to impose large spending obligations on the public sector, thus "breaking the system."
- the publication of The Other America: Poverty in the United States by Michael Harrington (1962) and Let Them Eat Promises: The Politics of Hunger In America (1969), by Washington Post reporter Nick Kotz;
- the Johnson administration's War on Poverty and Great Society programs (1963-1969);
- the creation of the Peace Corps (1961) and VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) (1964);
- the leadership of individuals like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Sen. George McGovern (D-SD), who chaired the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs (1968-1977); and, most importantly,
- the social movements that fueled and were inspired by these efforts.
My own coming of age was deeply rooted in the 1960s. I helped build an elementary school in Bafoussam, Cameroon, under the aegis of Operation Crossroads Africa in 1966, worked as a VISTA Associate at a Job Corps Center in West Virginia in 1967, and, after I graduated from college, "re-upped" with VISTA and worked in Kalihi-Palama, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Honolulu -- all before I turned 22.
Like many members of my generation, I ended up pouring my passion and energy into nonprofit organizations and the nonnprofit sector. But while my peers and I embarked on our life journeys as idealists, our work was grounded in the realities of what it takes to effect real change in the lives of those who have been conditioned to view the American dream as unattainable. In part through our efforts, the number of nonprofit organizations in the United States more than doubled, from 309,000 to 790,000, between 1967 and 1977. Yes, some of those organizations stumbled and disappeared with the demise of the Great Society in the 1970s, although the majority managed to adapt, cultivating new revenues streams from foundations, local and state government, business, and the general public. Indeed, many evolved into strong institutions and today serve as a second safety net for both the new and old poor. In many cases, they're also the only "trampoline" (to borrow Gloria Steinem’s phrase) for the newly poor and families trying to get back on their feet.
When I look around, I see a large number of nonprofits that are vibrant, living examples of their founders' legacies -- truly inspiring people like George Wiley, Wilma Mankiller, Saul Alinsky, Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Harvey Milk, Cesar Chavez, Fannie Lou Hamer, and countless others. And when those people are attacked by conservatives and anti-government types, our vital work is being attacked as well.
While the financial crisis and economic downturn have left us with fewer resources -- both human and financial -- to continue that work and fight the message promulgated by the Tea Partiers in our midst, we can take comfort from the fact that the majority of Americans believe that our nation has an ongoing social contract with its least fortunate citizens. History can teach us many things, and one of those things is that it is on our side.
-- Michael Seltzer