Posts Tagged ‘Poverty’

Just as MLK arrived in Memphis 43 years ago today to support his often overlooked work for social justice, he gave a landmark speech in his equally overlooked work for peace. At the Riverside Church in New York City, King spoke prophetically against the Vietnam war. He also demonstrated in this speech, better than in any other, how civil rights, economic justice, and peace are linked goals. Here are some excerpts, first on his reason for speaking out:

Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: “Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?” “Why are you joining the voices of dissent?” “Peace and civil rights don’t mix,” they say. “Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people,” they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened

Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over…

And, importantly, King shows how this issue is connected with the long term project for a stronger society:

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality…and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala — Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end, unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy…

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin…we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just…

Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism…

As I was reflecting on some of these excerpts in church today (the speech was highlighted during the sermon, along with a blessing of the “Martin from Birmingham” mural), I was reminded of how activists and advocates tend to focus on very narrow fields in the broader fight. It makes sense- health care policy is very different from foreign policy, and an understanding of civil rights law is very different from an understanding of antitrust law. There is a need for specialization. I do worry, though, that we pour our energies into whatever our issue happens to be, and merely cheerlead and vote based on the others.

King was urging us to see the linkages among these issues, and I think that spirit needs to be realized again among those who work for justice of all kinds. I was struck once when a seasoned community organizer I met said that King’s effectiveness waned when he lost focus and started talking about Vietnam. I didn’t know to challenge him at the time, but I now realize that King was the prophetic voice we needed to cohere a common voice. Sadly, his life’s work ended with an untimely death. Who will be that prophetic voice as we face times of increased war and economic injustice?



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Democracy in name only

In an excellent piece in the New York Times, Bob Herbert uses the revolution in Egypt to consider democracy in the United States [ht:cr].

His position is that “we’re in serious danger of becoming a democracy in name only” because power has become so concentrated in the top levels of financial and corporate America. Politicians no longer need to listen to anyone else. It is not a new argument, but it is hard to argue with:

The poor, who are suffering from an all-out depression, are never heard from. In terms of their clout, they might as well not exist. The Obama forces reportedly want to raise a billion dollars or more for the president’s re-election bid. Politicians in search of that kind of cash won’t be talking much about the wants and needs of the poor. They’ll be genuflecting before the very rich.

A politics oriented towards the poor would undoubtedly look very different from the public discourse of either the Republican or Democratic parties. It is important that people like Bob Herbert call attention to this issue in politics. However, the uncomfortable reality that Herbert touches on is that the political system will never achieve our democratic ideal while the economic system underpinning it is not democratic.

Mainstream economic theory advocates an undemocratic economy that condones the status quo. Only once mainstream economic theory is supplanted by a democratic economic theory will we be able to create a more democratic political discourse. A discourse that does indeed listen to the silent uproar of the poor over the wallets of the financial and corporate elites. This would be a society that is more than democracy in name only.

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3 years ago, I was a sophomore in college and taking part in a one-credit seminar on community organizing. With a group of 6 or 7 other (somewhat radical) progressives, we were pretty thrilled when November came around and the Dems took Congress back. The next evening, we arrived at our prep class, still talking about the midterm elections. Jay, the former community organizer who now works for ND and runs a community center affiliated with the University, simply stopped our conversation and said, “What about the poor people?”

And he was right. Pundits on the left and in the center were saying that the elections were a victory for the middle class. Of course, few saw the recession coming at that point, but everyone knew the middle class had been whittled in the six years preceding.

Much of the discussion during this recession on the left and the center focuses on the middle class, how manufacturing jobs are disappearing perhaps forever (even though job losses are occuring in all sectors). Very little focuses on the already poor. It makes sense; why talk about them, when nothing is changing? Poor in a boom, poor in a recession. Well, things do get worse, as those teetering on the edge fall into abject poverty, and those already there face states cutting their social services budget (my own state, Illinois, has been forced to implement a tax increase to save these social services from overall budgetary cuts).

All that said, this makes me particularly glad that the NYT is featuring a series of columns by Barbara Ehrenreich, who has a lengthy track record of excellent reporting and writing on the poor. In fact, her first column in the series, which Sean blogged, offered a more eloquent and detailed argument of what I just outlined above. The second in the series focused on those who have been pushed into poverty by the recession and shows how they cope. Today’s third article focuses on the increased criminality of poverty, and I’ve excerpted some of it below the fold. (more…)

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Speaking 2 weeks ago at the Chautauqua Institution, Michael Novak hold forth on the Ethics of Capitalism in a Friedman-esque fashion. Of course, he doesn’t come off as nearly that intelligent, at least not in the FORA.tv editor’s selected highlight clip, in which he talks about the rich-poor gap in response to a question from the audience or a panelist or somebody with a brain (I’d like to watch the rest tonight, but there are no promises in the blogosphere).

He makes a few stupid arguments in this particular clip, which you should watch for yourself because no transcript is available and I have to ungenerously paraphrase.

1) The common good does not require equality, just that the bottom are continuously moving up, and this is happening, so we’ve struck the common good.

The nice hidden premise in here is that the bottom (and middle, I suppose), have been moving up, so therefore we’ve reached the common good. This second premise, however, is false, and the stagnation of real wages has been documented thoroughly and even targeted as a key cause of the economic crisis.

2) Simple arithmetic implies that the gap will always be growing; even if the rich only grow by 1% and the poor grow by 10%, the gap will increase.

Who actually talks about the absolute gap? Maybe we should, because it would make our inequality growth look even starker. Nevertheless, I’ve always seen it referred to in ratios and relative terms, e.g. the top 1% received x% of national income, the CEO earned X times the lowest-paid worker, etc. This argument is simply ridiculous. Maybe it’s just because he got caught off guard by the most predictable question he could’ve face in front of a responsible audience.

3) Talk of inequality is a sign of envy. Now I’m going to moralize about how immigrants stay off welfare and pull themselves out of poverty. Anyone can do it in 5 years. Also, children can pitch in. “Family socialism.”

Where to begin? First, I’m doubting the “responsibly audience” line, as the word “envy” brought tremendous applause. Second, America is no longer the economically mobile society that Novak envisions. Third, by bringing up the immigrant thing (which may not even be true), Novak predictably ignores that immigrants are less likely (I think) to be caught up in vicious social and economic cycles.

4) This is just an argument of political factions; I used to be on the other side, before I saw the light.

Sigh. Reducing a pressing problem to politics is all too common, but completely dodges the point. On second thought, there’s no way I could stomach 59 more minutes of this bullshit, so if somebody else wants to watch it and pick things out for the comments, I’d be happy to bump them up here.

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Hint: it might not be the “poverty trap”…

Jeffrey Sachs has a new article about…the same thing he always talks about:

The G-8’s $20bn initiative on smallholder agriculture, launched at the group’s recent summit in L’Aquila, Italy, is a potentially historic breakthrough in the fight against hunger and extreme poverty. With serious management of the new funds, food production in Africa will soar.

Indeed, the new initiative, combined with others in health, education, and infrastructure, could be the greatest step so far toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals, the internationally agreed effort to reduce extreme poverty, disease, and hunger by half by 2015…

…One cornerstone of the project was “smallholder farmers”,  meaning peasant farm families in Africa, Latin America, and Asia – working farms of around one hectare (2.5 acres) or less. These are some of the poorest households in the world, and, ironically, some of the hungriest as well, despite being food producers.

They are hungry because they lack the ability to buy high-yield seeds, fertiliser, irrigation equipment, and other tools needed to increase productivity.

As a result, their output is meagre and insufficient for their subsistence. Their poverty causes low farm productivity, and low farm productivity reinforces their poverty. It’s a vicious circle, technically known as a poverty trap.

Is that really the reason why these farmers are  “some of the poorest households in the world, and, ironically, some of the hungriest”?  Sachs likes to talk about “history’s lessons,” but hasn’t history also taught us that hunger doesn’t happen in isolation?  Surely, these farmers aren’t just hungry because they lack industrial farming technology.  What’s the bigger picture look like?  (here’s one look, and another)

And has anybody else noticed that everything aid-related seems to be an “historic breakthrough” for Sachs, even while poverty is still rampant, abroad and at home?  Maybe Sachs is missing something…

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Poor Still Poor

Op-Ed from Barbara Ehrenreich:

The human side of the recession, in the new media genre that’s been called “recession porn,” is the story of an incremental descent from excess to frugality, from ease to austerity. The super-rich give up their personal jets; the upper middle class cut back on private Pilates classes; the merely middle class forgo vacations and evenings at Applebee’s. In some accounts, the recession is even described as the “great leveler,” smudging the dizzying levels of inequality that characterized the last couple of decades and squeezing everyone into a single great class, the Nouveau Poor, in which we will all drive tiny fuel-efficient cars and grow tomatoes on our porches.

But the outlook is not so cozy when we look at the effects of the recession on a group generally omitted from all the vivid narratives of downward mobility — the already poor, the estimated 20 percent to 30 percent of the population who struggle to get by in the best of times. This demographic, the working poor, have already been living in an economic depression of their own. From their point of view “the economy,” as a shared condition, is a fiction.


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