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Sunday, November 3, 2013

WAR ON POVERTY Becomes WAR ON THE POOR

I attended something very recently that is called a “simulation.”  That word is briefly defined as an ‘imitation’ or ‘resemblance.’  A more complete definition: ‘to take on the external appearance of’; ‘to look or act like.’  Even taken together, the definitions do not quite do justice to what was attempted or achieved by the activity in which I participated.

This particular simulation was part of a symposium on poverty sponsored by a local area Community Action Agency.  The simulation was built around family circumstances that were actually drawn anonymously from an agency in the area.  They were families living on the edge, so to speak, even though most of the families contained a person who was working at a paying job!  Most were not below the poverty line, but were very close to it.  Each group in the simulation took on a family name and acted out individual roles within those family groupings.  For each group there was a packet of documents and information.  The main information sheet set up the scenario and the family member roles.  The other documents consisted of checks, cash, pictures of items that could be sold, like a TV set, as well as transportation, food stamp and other vouchers.  There were also some extra items such as Good News or Bad News cards that tended to change certain dynamics.  As necessary, family members had to proceed to certain tables or stations - where one dealt with various needs and concerns - including a school and college, a bank, grocery store, day care, (interfaith) social service agency, a quick pay, and a social service office, plus a few others.  15-20 minute segments were equal to a day’s worth of activity, which made it difficult to accomplish what one needed to do. 

I happened to have the role of a twenty-one year old community college student, who was also trying to care for a family of three children, ages 1 year, 13 and 16 because the mother was gone from the household and the father had been incarcerated.  We had a certain amount of money to live on, including a check that the father had earned at work before he was sent to jail, a $200 per week stipend from the community college, and that was it.  There was no breadwinner available, and the kids were expected to handle things on their own.  Needless to say, that turned into something of a disaster!  The 21 year-old had so much to do for the family that he couldn’t get to school for quite a few days, thereby jeopardizing his stipend.  The 16 year-old was a help but not being an adult was limited in what was acceptable for her to accomplish.  She did manage to take the baby with her once to get some food.  When the 13 -year old was enlisted to help, more problems occurred, including a visit by the police, and a child welfare staff person.  However, the more involvement by these agency people, the better for the family, as food stamps became a possibility, the sheriff took pity and gave some money for food from his own pocket, and we learned that some money for transportation might have been available from Social Services.  Getting the youngest to day care and the student to classes, continued to be a problem by the time the session ended.

What is difficult to explain, I suppose, is how the pressures of everyday life were exacerbated by being poor.  Everybody has pressures, but in this one family, the children had more put upon them than they could handle, or were allowed to handle.  There was an enormous pressure just finding the time to get done in a day what needed to be done.  Visits to agencies and stores and banks seemed to eat up time -- always a line; always a delay.  Then, there was the enormous question of adequate transportation and the constant need to think about how to get from one place to another as well as the cost of doing so.  There were also those extras that the poor have to deal with, while others of some affluence do not.  For instance, at the bank, just cashing a check led to questioning related to other payments -- the mortgage, a loan, a charge.  The check couldn’t be cashed until everything else was rectified.  And then, whatever extra charges there were had to be deducted from the check, before it could be cashed.  The amount received was not the amount of the check, and therefore caused a crisis with food shopping, since cut-backs were necessary.  Without food stamps, the family was not able to buy what it needed, and applying for the food stamps had been delayed because the 21-year-old head of household was called out from social services to attend to the 13-year old who had been detained at day care when she tried to pick up the baby and was told she could not; then Child Protective and the police were called.  The young family leader had to leave social services without getting the food stamps and without a transportation voucher and attend to the needs of his 13 year-old and 1 year-old siblings.  He also had to answer next day all the questions that arose with Child Protective and the police department. 

Although most of the role players in the agencies were quite helpful, some had evidently been instructed to be somewhat difficult or robotic, or both.  And perhaps, that is what poor people encounter much of the time,  a certain disinterest as well as a bias or prejudice against them, even against the working poor.  The whole thought that “the poor” are mainly lazy and shiftless and irresponsible is an overblown stereotype that is used by politicians and others to “stir the pot” and to bring others along to a point of reducing government’s role in the well-being of the poorest among us. 

What else did I learn?  I learned that we as the body politic, are placing on children living in poverty an enormous burden.  It is the equivalent of any child neglect that parents themselves might perpetrate.  Politicians are cutting programs that benefit children, and they are doing it without any regard to the short-term and long-term consequences.  Children are also being burdened by parents who are not living up to their responsibilities.  Often in such a case, a grandparent has to become involved in order to rescue children from an untenable situation or to provide day care, so the mother or father, or both, can simply go to work.  Placing responsibilities on children to go to school, run errands, do homework, etc. is not unusual for any child.  What bothers me from the simulation is that the burdens go beyond that: being responsible at an early age for shopping for the whole family, or advocating with an agency for the whole family, or taking care of a baby so others in the family can go about their chores and their work seems like an over-burden to me.  Certainly, in the simulation, Child Protective thought so! 

Then there is the burden of the cycle of poverty that we used to hear so much about, but rarely do so now.  For those living in poverty, one thing like lack of day care on a particular day, or lack of food stamps on many days, or lack enough transportation money has consequences that reach beyond the one incident of inadequacy or emergency. That’s certainly one type of cycle that I experienced in the simulation, but the cycle of poverty implies a larger and deeper occurrence. The larger cycle might start with jobs - no job, and you may be stuck in poverty.  No job affects health insurance – can’t afford it!  No job affects where you can go because transportation becomes more limited - no money to pay for it.  The food one can choose to eat becomes more limited.  Poor-paying jobs also lead to inadequate educational opportunities which again lead to poor jobs and limited resources.  And this burden gets even worse when we bring in the factor of geography and environment – that children in poverty are forced to live in circumstances and environments that threaten their very existence. 

Among my own ancestors in 18th century England, families remained in poverty through several generations.  Because of the disadvantages caused by their poverty, outside and inside forces worked together in a vicious cycle to make it virtually impossible to break the cycle and move into a better circumstance, because their lack of resources continuously worked together to keep them in poverty.  In our time, this pattern continues despite the myriad of changes in industry, geography, values, and politics.  We still define the cycle of poverty as a phenomenon by which families become trapped in poverty for several generations because they lack resources such as good jobs, education, nutritious food, good health, as well as connections to capital and property.  This pattern of disadvantages as a result of their poverty, leads to continuous and sometimes increased poverty.

The War on Poverty, under President Lyndon Johnson, was an attempt to break this cycle of poverty at various points in that vicious circle. There was little question at that time, that it was the central government that had the major responsibility for this attempt.  Talk of a ‘safety net’ was minimal (that was a Republican mantra under Nixon and Reagan).  The Johnson-era mantra was a War on Poverty.  There was an idealistic view in some quarters that we could actually eradicate poverty!  President Johnson's first ever public reference to just such a "Great Society" took place during a speech to students on May 7, 1964, at Ohio University:  "And with your courage and with your compassion and your desire, we will build a
Great Society. It is a Society where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled."

Many programs emerged that were to be used to fight the break-through battles.  New major spending programs addressing education, medical care, urban problems, and transportation were launched during this period.  Included were Medicare, federal aid to education, high-speed mass transit, rental supplements, truth in packaging, environmental safety legislation, new provisions for mental health facilities, a teachers’ corps, manpower training, Operation Head Start, aid to urban mass transit, a demonstration cities program, a housing act that included rental subsidies, and an act for higher education. Underlying it all were some major civil rights acts including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that forbade job discrimination and the segregation of public accommodations. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 assured minority registration and voting. It suspended use of voter-qualification tests that had often served to keep African-Americans off voting lists while it also provided for federal court lawsuits to stop discriminatory poll taxes.

One of the interesting things that happened to spawn such legislation was Johnson’s use of task forces of educators and experts similar to those begun by President Kennedy to formulate his New Frontier legislation. Wikipedia sums up the process:
 
“The reliance on experts appealed to Johnson, in part because the task forces would work in secret and outside of the existing governmental bureaucracy and directly for the [White House] staff. Almost immediately after the Ann Arbor speech, 14 separate task forces began studying nearly all major aspects of United States society under the guidance of presidential assistants Bill Moyers and Richard N. Goodwin.
The average task force had nine members and generally was composed of governmental experts and academics. Only one of the task forces on the 1965 legislative program addressed foreign affairs and foreign economic policy; the rest were charged with domestic policy (agriculture, anti-recession policy, civil rights, education, efficiency and economy, health, income maintenance policy, intergovernmental fiscal cooperation, natural resources, pollution of the environment, preservation of natural beauty, transportation, and urban problems).
After task force reports were submitted to the White House, Moyers began a second round of review. The recommendations were circulated among the agencies concerned and were evaluated by new committees composed mostly of government officials. Experts on relations with Congress were also drawn into the deliberations to get the best advice on persuading the Congress to pass the legislation. In late 1964 Johnson reviewed these initial Great Society proposals at his ranch with Moyers and Budget Director Kermit Gordon. Many of them were included in Johnson’s State of the Union Address delivered on January 4, 1965.”

And so, the War on Poverty was launched.  Let’s be clear that this was not simply a bunch of social give-away programs meant to provide a safety net into which one could inevitably fall, but a well-thought out attempt to address the roots of a problem that has plagued this, and many other countries, some for centuries.  It was meant to help people break through a vicious cycle or circle of obstacles and hurdles that had grown like cancers on the body politic, choking the natural unalienable rights of all citizens.  It went to the core of who we are as a people and as a nation. 

“The centerpiece of the War on Poverty was the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which created an Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to oversee a variety of community-based antipoverty programs.
Federal funds were provided for special education schemes in slum areas, including help in paying for books and transport, while financial aid was also provided for slum clearances and rebuilding city areas. In addition, the Appalachian Regional Development Act of 1965 created jobs in one of the most impoverished regions of the country. The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 provided various schemes in which young people from poor homes could receive job training and higher education.
The OEO reflected a fragile consensus among policymakers that the best way to deal with poverty was not simply to raise the incomes of the poor but to help them better themselves through education, job training, and community development. Central to its mission was the idea of "community action", the participation of the poor in framing and administering the programs designed to help them.” (Wikipedia)

That latter point has been entirely missed by the radical right-wing that now wants to blame the victims of this vicious cycle and declare war on those who live in poverty.  The War on Poverty was originally meant to be a grassroots movement by the poor themselves and by their advocates.  This was not simply a give-away program; it was democracy in action.  It was not just a safety net, but a grass-roots attempt to challenge and change the conditions that produce and perpetuate poverty and its resultant consequences. Poor people were being called to do something about the conditions that kept them down and out, and many came forth to answer that call.

But we now know what happened. Starting with the candidacy of Barry Goldwater, and then the administrations of Nixon and Reagan, the Republican Party began the dismantling of this ‘great society’ concept and design because of their distaste for the poor themselves; because community action was threatening their power-base, and because their primary constituency – the wealthy – were being forced to support people and causes in which they had little or no involvement or investment.
 
The active dismantling of the welfare state began, pretty much, with Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” to use these government programs to turn the cumulative disgust for such programs in mainly southern states to his advantage.  The solid democratic South (and some of the West as well) became a solid Republican stronghold. I remember well, as a staff member in a Community Action agency, how anxious we all were as the budgets of several programs were challenged or cut by Republican-dominated congresses.  I remember well the disappearance of a program called Legal Aid.  Apparently giving poor people the legal means to fight against discrimination and racism could just not be tolerated.  It was quite evident from then on that conservatism was very uncomfortable with the idea of poor people actually doing what conservatives always demand of them: take responsibility, do something to change your status, get more education, and make good use of your resources. 

Today, the dismantling has turned into a War on the Poor (and some in the middle class). Every anti-poverty program is under attack. Labor is under attack. Reagan’s War on Drugs has been revealed as an attack on the young males of two minority groups, African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans.  Public Education is under attack. Universal healthcare reform is under attack.  Women of all groups are under attack.  Voting rights are under attack and voting is being restricted. And all of these battles are no more than skirmishes in the war on national government itself.  Sequestration and government shut-down are just the beginning.  Soon there will be no anti-poverty mechanisms left.  The War on Poverty will be completely lost, and the poor will be joined by many who currently hover just above the poverty line.  The many are being sacrificed to coddle the richest few. The poor are being re-assigned to the garbage dumps of history, as they once were in more ancient times. The crazies of the hard Right have lost all perspective as to what happens to a country that willfully neglects its poor and disabled and vulnerable.  It becomes an empty shell, and its worth in the eyes of the world is diminished.  We are at that point. 

Can we sink lower?  Yes, we can; and we will if we continue to elect a group of radical Republicans intent on destroying central government and the anti-poverty programs designed to give everyone an equal opportunity to break the patterns and cycles of poverty.  Holding back one group, or favoring one group over another, is not healthy for a truly democratic state. A War on the Poor, and destruction of our core government, is not the path to an open and inclusive society. It destroys incentive, causes the loss of potential resources and potential leaders.  But, it mainly eats away at the very core of values which make us a respected nation and a nation dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal and that we are all endowed with certain inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

This subject will not go away anytime soon.  As of Nov. 1st, a temporary 13.6% supplemental increase in food stamps was allowed to run-out with no renewal.  This is on top of the $4 billion proposed cuts in the food stamp program (SNAP) in the Senate’s farm bill.  Taken together, this will have a deleterious effect on 47 million people who have to depend on SNAP to help feed their families.  There are those in Congress who have the audacity to blame the “unproductive, lazy poor” for needing help to feed their families. Their knowledge of the causes of poverty and the needs of the poor in order to escape that condition – that vicious cycle – is abysmal, to say the least.  We shall have more to say about this War on the Poor.  In the meantime, I wonder how many congressmen and senators have actually taken part in a poverty simulation, let alone even come in close contact with anyone who actually lives within the vicious cycle of poverty every day?  In spite of the fact that many living in poverty are actually in their districts, too many congressmen simply ignore their presence.  So, in our representative democracy, who is representing those who live in or near abject poverty?  Much more needs to be- and will be - said here on this topic; so stay tuned.....