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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.)

Keep_your_coins_i_want_change 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.

Piven's crime?

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."

Beck is hardly the first person to scapegoat those with the least as the cause of the nation's fiscal woes. Indeed, the angry backlash against the disparate efforts and events that awoke America in the 1960s to the grinding poverty in its midst has been simmering for more than forty years. Those efforts/events included:

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

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Posted by ThirdWay  |   April 22, 2010 at 11:07 AM

I am one of those tea party members who also happens to be a professional social worker and philanthropist. I am protesting Wall Street and Washington.

I believe in the basic truth that every individual has been created in God's image and has dignity and worth, regardless of position, intelligence, sex, religion, race, sexual orientation, or politics.

Since I hold firmly to this truth I also believe that it is fundamentally right to serve and help another. It is also fundamentally wrong to secure a benefit at the expense of another.

I reject Conflict Theory and it's philosophical and political offspring of Marxism and Socialism. I also reject the unbridled greed of Capitalism and the not-so-free market system of Corporatism. The end result of both systems is wealth and power in the hands of a few elite.

In Socialism the elite are the political class who maintain power by redistributing wealth and playing class warfare. The elite in Capitalism are the corporations who use their wealth to buy government influence and crush real free market through monopolies, bailouts, and "to big to fail" policies.

There is a better way, a third way. The goal is prosperity for all without taking from any.

To get there you will have to give up your old worn out ideas based on Conflict Theory, and your opponents will have to give up their selfish ambitions.

Socialism preaches "fairness" but it is flawed because it is motivated by envy. Left unchecked it ends up institutionalizing envy. Capitalism preaches "freedom" but is flawed because it is motivated by greed. Left unchecked it ends up institutionalizing greed. Both are built on a faulty win-lose paradigm.

The third way preaches "empowerment" because it is motivated by justice. It is built on a win-win paradigm.

In a Capitalist system, ownership is in the hand of a few rich. In Socialism, ownership is the hand of the state. In the Just Third Way, everyone can truly by an owner. It is the only system that decentralizes power and thus eludes the corruptible nature of centralized power.

George Wiley, Wilma Mankiller, Saul Alinsky, Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Harvey Milk, Cesar Chavez, Fannie Lou Hamer, are prophets of of a kind of revolution built on a sandy foundation of envy that only leads to a different bunch of despots.

We can do better.

Posted by Michael Seltzer  |   April 22, 2010 at 02:31 PM

I find your characterization of all the key social movement leaders that I mentioned in my article unseemly and a profound disservice to their historical contributions. Each leader played a critical role in eliminating structural barriers that impeded substantial numbers of Americans of enjoying the fruits of our democracy

This is especially true since all of those that I mentioned except Gloria Steinem are deceased, and are not able to respond to your charges. And of course, Harvey Milk was assassinated for his beliefs of equality for all.

I was very privileged to have known them all, and each stood up to injustices that marred American democracy and the hopes put forth by the Declaration of Independence. They are all American patriots.

Posted by Carolyn Todd  |   April 22, 2010 at 09:02 PM

Mike, great commentary and historical perspective on the ongoing struggle to improve life for all Americans, not just the privileged few. And also brings back to me such wonderful thoughts and memories about how you personally impacted me and the direction in my life. Your passion and optimism continues to be a shining beacon and inspiration for me and many others.

Non-profits and community organizations have become smarter over the years about what works and doesn't work to truly help people better their lives. And they have been forced to become more resourceful in attracting resources such as business partners and private donations to continue their important work.

The flaw in Third Way's thinking that I see is the reference to the important social movements and the leaders you mention as proposing "big government" sort of solutions. Or marxism/socialism? No, I don't think so.

The leaders you mentioned became leaders because they were, first and foremost, grounded in local communities, saw critical human rights issues and profound poverty or injustice that needed to be addressed, and solved problems/created programs locally at first. Over time they became national leaders because their local work was lauded and it worked. The de-centralization-centralization argument is a smokescreen that in my mind is just rhetoric.

By the way I am encouraged by what I'm seeing at the business school where I teach. There is an emerging interest, expressed recently to me by many business students, in learning about non-profit careers, about social marketing, or about business partnerships on sustainability. The search for breakthrough and innovative solutions to poverty will be fueled not only by leaders like yourself, but by a new generation that will instinctively think globally.

Posted by ThirdWay  |   April 23, 2010 at 11:30 AM


I do not question the contribution or success of the social movement leaders you mention. I honor their legacy but also question the basic sociological theory that motivated their work.

It is fundamentally flawed and ultimately leads to power shifts with different set of winners and different set of losers.

Those leaders, with the exception of Steinem, did not live long enough to witness the power shift. I wonder, if they did live long enough to see the tables turned, would they fight equally as hard to secure justice and fairness for their former oppressors.

It is like what Caroyln Todd posted, "ongoing struggle to improve life for all Americans, not just the privileged few."

It is the "us verses them" mentality of the conflict theory that must stop. To continue the work those social movement leaders began we must change our thinking and our language.

If our arguments and our work is always cast in rich v poor, white v black, straight v gay, men v women, kinds of rhetoric then it only makes sense that the conflict will only continue.

I appreciate your article and for allowing a dissenting voice.

Posted by ThirdWay  |   April 23, 2010 at 01:29 PM

In short: Flawed paradigms lead to false dichotomies.

Posted by Michael Seltzer  |   April 23, 2010 at 02:24 PM

Thanks, Carolyn, for adding your own voice to this discussion, and for sharing the hopeful signs emerging among Penn State business students. There are other clear signs that a new socially-concerned generation is emerging, such as an upturn in applications to Peace Corps, Cross-Cultural Solutions and other international nonprofit service organizations. Not only is history on our side, but there is strong chance that the future is as well.

Posted by Betsy Fitzgerald  |   April 23, 2010 at 02:38 PM

Thank you for the perspective on this troubling latest eruption. While they may believe their ideas are new, their narcissism is as old and tired as other movements that place humanity at the bottom of the scale. Since I had the great honor of working with you on some of the nonprofit projects of the late 60s, I appreciate your solid commitment to community. You continue to inspire.

Posted by Carolyn Todd  |   April 23, 2010 at 03:15 PM

A quote from one of my marketing textbooks on the meaning of "sustainability": "This refers to the idea that socially responsible companies will outperform their peers by focusing on the world's social problems and viewing them as opportunities to build profits and help the world at the same time. It is also the notion that companies cannot thrive for long (i.e. lack sustainability) in a world where billions of people are suffering and are desperately poor. Thus, it is in business's interest to find ways to attack society's ills."

New initiatives are underway at business schools to explore the notion of sustainabiity. A lot of people think about this as just environmental sustainability but in fact it's much broader than that.

We are seeing now the impact of diversity initiatives that were promoted by social change activists in the 60's and 70's. It took business 30 years to fully embrace diversity as not just the legal or right thing to do, but a necessary requirement in order to compete in the global economy. Basically business discovered (somewhat accidentally through Affirmative Action laws imposed on them) that diversity was good for profits - that by attracting the best talent regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, etc. they would outperform other companies that were less open to expanding their talent pool.

So I don't know how long it will take for businesses to embrace the idea of sustainability, but I see positive signs in the current proliferation of marketing partnerships between businesses and non-profits. There is self-interest as well - businesses have discovered that by aligning with non-profits they can create customer loyalty that increases their revenues and market share.

Mike, you have a different perspective from your expertise as a non-profit fundraising consultant. I'm curious as to what you see in these business/non-profit marketing partnerships. Do you see a permanent trend leading to more non-profit resources in the future or are you thinking that this is a passing fancy by business that, once every business starts adopting a charity, will become old-hat and less attractive to business because such partnerships will no create a competitive advantage for business?

Posted by Gary Bass  |   April 24, 2010 at 05:25 PM

Wouldn't it be nice if Bobby McFerrin was right: "Don't Worry, Be Happy." Unfortunately, as a leader of a nonprofit organization -- OMB Watch -- with a social justice orientation that focuses on government accountability and citizen participation, I see power disparities everyday. While I'm a major proponent of building "transpartisan" (the new buzz word) coalitions when they can be built, I also remain dedicated to ensuring fairness and justice remain foremost in the agenda. And that often means power struggles of epic proportions.

It is enormously disheartening that recent polls show trust in government at very low levels. But when government becomes eviscerated (think Hurricane Katrina), poorly protects the public (think the lack of regulatory protections in food, workplace, financial institutions, and much more), puts raising campaign contributions above addressing social equity concerns, or fails to demonstrate the many good things accomplished with federal spending, it becomes understandable why trust has dropped.

When government doesn't work, it becomes incumbent on all of us to fix it so that we build a better performing government, a government that reconnects with "We, the People." This seems to be the difference between angry Tea Party representatives and me. They want to shrink government to the size where "I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub," as Grover Norquist said. This "starve the beast" mindset is the ultimate conflict theory.

I want to find ways to make government work. This doesn't mean bigger government; it means better government. While I may not be pleased with all aspects of the recent health care law, I am ecstatic that health care is now a right, not a privilege. While I'm a fan of Recovery Act spending, I know it would be far better if we collected data from those receiving government money about who are the people who are getting jobs and what type of pay and benefits are they receiving. In other words, I want to hold my government accountable for achieving what the law was designed to do -- serving people most impacted by the economic downturn.

I recently talked to two seasoned community organizers about the Tea Party. They felt the Tea Party would fade over time for two primary reasons. First, they rely too much on anger. "Anger is not glue," one of the organizers said. Glue, from his perspective, is a positive vision of the future, providing equal opportunity for all. Ultimately, negative vision brings with it too many angry people who will sooner or later attack each other. (We have already seen the anger be dangerously directed to those who are outside the Tea Party.)

Second, the Tea Party constituency is too homogeneous,
and this is not secret code for white (although the poll that Michael mentions does paint the Tea Party quite white). The essence of diversity is different life experiences with different styles and temperaments. Working through those differences is a key ingredient to successful organizations and movements. It is the vibrant part of civil society and democracy.

Bottom line: thanks, Michael, for writing your thoughtful column.

Posted by Sharon Hametz  |   April 27, 2010 at 09:51 AM

So here's a mundane question: can you give me a reference for the sustainability definition you quoted above? Thanks.

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