Monday, October 18, 2010


Two Ways of Fighting Poverty

The poor need help! They may need help finding a job, they may need advice, they may need some money to tide them over a hard period. They need encouragement, reassurance that they are able and competent persons even though at the moment things are not going their way.

One in four Americans, in any decade, will fall below the poverty line due to unemployment, illness, divorce. But the vast majority of them will be poor for short periods. If they can get help they can get their life together again.

At the moment our government is unwilling to help. There is a bill before the Senate extending the unemployment benefits to people who have not been able to find work for a long time due to the present economic crisis. But the Senate seems not interested in this bill. Instead, the Senators worry about keeping the Bush tax cuts for the very rich--those who are earning more than $250,000 a year. Helping the poor is not on the agenda of our elected representatives. They are too worried about the people at the other end of the economic spectrum.

It is easy to understand our Senators' disinterest in poverty and homelessness and their eagerness to get on the good side of millionaires. Getting elected and re-elected to the Senate is VERY expensive. The poor do not contribute to senatorial campaigns; the rich do.

These are familiar facts to which people react differently. Some people say “ I do not participate in politics because all politicians are crooks.” But that makes no sense. If someone sells you a car that turns out to be a lemon, do you say:” All car dealers are crooks” and go out and buy another automobile? No, you go and make a stink and try to get your money back. Why should you not make a stink about Senators that take no interest in their constituents who have no money?

A second response is to say that poor people should vote in large numbers—which they don't.

I think that that is true but it is not enough! In politics as in many other situations it is the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. If poor people want to get attention from their government, they need to make a lot of noise.

What sort of noise? Here are some ideas: A campaign of letters to the newspapers saying your Senator cares only for the rich. Get on the local public access television talk shows and talk about the Senator's unwillingness to help people who can't find work. Wherever the Senator goes he is dogged by people with signs about how he only cares for millionaires.

Obviously this will not work if one or two people do it by themselves. They'll just make a nuisance of themselves. But that sort of noise is important if everyone knows that there is an organization behind it. If the people with signs are representatives of a larger movement they will get attention because they represent a significant number of votes.

The second form of fighting poverty is to build organizations of the poor, the homeless, the unemployed. In the previous major depression, in the 1930s, in cities like New York, Chicago, and Detroit, the Unemployed Councils made an immediate impact, staging large attention-getting demonstrations in the winter and spring of 1930 and in subsequent years building neighborhood based Councils that fought for public assistance and rallied neighbors to conduct rent strikes and resist evictions.” (http://depts.washington.edu/labhist/cpproject/ black.shtml) The government heard them and initiated the New Deal. That was not a perfect program but it paid more attention to the poor, the homeless, the unemployed than our government does today.