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More on Organizing the Poor

From a reader:

I would point out that the Center for Community Change attempts to actually mobilize grassroots groups of low-income people. (They don’t have the influence of, say, CBPP but perhaps that’s a tough standard to meet.) When I’ve talked to them lately they’ve been focused on immigration reform. Which brings up another angle that you don’t really cover – race. Policies that advance the needs of those in poverty are often conflated in the political process with those that help people of color. Heck, welfare is still probably code for “black” after all these years and demographic changes. Serious immigration reform would make a big difference for a lot of people at the margins – but it’s a “Latino issue."

My sense of this situation is that it goes far beyond immigration reform: illegal immigrants are the new inner-city blacks, at least so far as demagoguery goes. If you look at health care, the more racially charged attacks don't imply that the plan is a giveaway to poor African-Americans, but to illegal immigrants. Indeed, my understanding is that no matter what social program you're talking about, the single surefire method to create majority opposition out of popular support is to say that the program will help illegal immigrants.

Original post on the subject here.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 27, 2009; 10:57 AM ET
Categories:  Poverty  
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The Center for Community Change is focused on mobilizing grassroots *groups*. There are lots of small, individual groups dedicated to helping the poor. Anacostia is peppered with little community non-profits trying to drum up grant money and work with the community. The difference is that unlike the groups you discuss in "Politics and the Poor," these are all very, very local in scope. The interest groups concerned with addressing poverty -- namely, the poor -- are going to be the ones concerned about their own poverty in their own neighborhoods.

On another note, why is it that the Center for Community Change is focusing on immigration reform which has become the latest scapegoat? Wouldn't they find more success helping the inner city poor on non-immigration-reform issues as a means to outflank conservative opposition, which has been distracted from welfare-and-race baiting, lately?

Posted by: constans | August 27, 2009 11:09 AM | Report abuse

It's a little surprising to see this level of naivete on this page. It's true that CCC does good work, but "organizing" the poor has been at the heart of movements for social change for at least the last century. That's what Ella Baker, Bob Moses, Martin Luther King Jr., etc were doing in the south. Check out groups like Southern Echo or the Bus Riders Union in L.A., you'll see large groups of low-income people of color mobilized to change their circumstances. The problem is that the structural barriers to empowerment for these communities are so extreme and that, precisely because they are low-income, the levers of power are far from their grasp. Move-On and groups like it have the benefit of being much closer to the levers of power. The problem is not that no one is organizing low-income people of color, but rather that once they are organized, they are still structurally excluded from getting their voices heard.

Posted by: badschiraldi | August 27, 2009 11:35 AM | Report abuse

Politicians have a hard time talking about poverty because you can't talk about poverty without talking about class--and that means substantial discussion about how one accumulates wealth and how impoverishment occurs and to whom it occurs. As has been noted by others before me, (notably in Structural Inequality: News Not Fit to Print? on July 21, 2009), that means addressing the legacy of white supremacy, the systematic socioeconomic disenfranchisement of African Americans and women, the role of state-supported discriminatory practices, and how impoverishment attacks a peculiar segment of the working-class and middle-class, consistently thwarting attempts to accumulate wealth. For example, the subprime mortgage crisis has not only brought thousands of the middle-class into poverty, but will have an impact for generations of these home buyers who have lost their "wealth" along with their homes. And that loss goes to make other people wealthier: it's not as if impoverishment happens in a vacuum.

It's disingenuous to imagine that poor people are not active on their own behalf, nor that others who fight for social justice who are not poor do not have structural analyses of poverty/wealth and neo-liberal social policies. Poor people's movements have a long and diverse history, and work on the local, regional, and national levels. Welfare reform movements, led by women on welfare have been active since the 60s. And these mobilizations have not had large-scale impacts just because there is no access to the levers of power--the Institute for Policy Studies has been lobbying for social justices issues, including on wealth/poverty since 1963; I tend to think it is because the powers that be have no interest in making policy changes that might impact their own power and wealth. United for A Fair Economy raises awareness that concentrated wealth and power undermine the economy and is a good place to get some critical thinking about the economy as a whole.

Posted by: moonmarked | August 27, 2009 12:43 PM | Report abuse

'Wouldn't they find more success helping the inner city poor on non-immigration-reform issues as a means to outflank conservative opposition, which has been distracted from welfare-and-race baiting, lately?'

Immigration reform is essential to improving the lives of all. When undocumented workers are exploited at the work place and jobs that should be paying at least minimum wage are paying much less to undocumented workers, that hurts everyone - except, of course, the executives of those businesses. If we want to be honest about doing something about poverty, we must address the plight of those most vulneranle in our society. The most vulnerable right now are undocumented immigrants.

It is more than an immigration and human rights issue, this is an economic fairness issue.

Posted by: mohloff | August 27, 2009 2:18 PM | Report abuse

Not to mention that in many areas, "inner city poor" includes both documented and undocumented immigrants...and anti-immigrant activity is inherently race baiting--when's the last time undocumented Irish were targets of public battering? Much of the vitriol is aimed at anyone who could potentially be undocumented---it's not as if you can tell someones status by visual cues.

It's a good thing that those of us who are most vulnerable are willing to work together, noting the ways that our struggles are intertwined rather than fight for the sole rights to the crumbs.

Posted by: moonmarked | August 27, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

*Immigration reform is essential to improving the lives of all.*

You'll have to excuse me, but I find it strange that they only *just* discovered this. If immigration reform is essential to improving the lives of all, does that mean that all those other initiatives before the big push for immigration reform were wasted? This sounds to me like groups that are getting caught up in trends of the cause-of-the-month.

In fact, I'd consider it pretty unfair for the poor, who have a large number of issues to contend with, to be told, "Yes, there are a lot of community problems that need to be dealt with, but first we have to deal with undocumented immigrants, which is our biggest priority right now."

If your big activist priority is about immigration reform, then great... go do your thing. However, if you're concerned about helping the poor and are prioritizing immigration reform over other issues (particularly issues which aren't in demagogic sights at the moment), then it sounds like the poor are getting the shaft, being forced to "wait in line" behind the need for immigration reform.

Posted by: constans | August 27, 2009 2:55 PM | Report abuse

You're not getting the point constans. It's easy to create strawmen and come up with reasons not to address certain issues. I'm still not sure what you're advocating for. Patchwork solutions in poor communities all over the country? I would argue a national policy passed that brings together all poor (documented and undocumented) to the benefit of bringing up wages for all would be a much better long term solution.

We can be cynical about organizing the poor and disenfranchised, and it is tough, tough work, but it is incredibly necessary if we are genuine about what we want our society to look like.

Posted by: mohloff | August 27, 2009 3:24 PM | Report abuse

mohloff: a cynical take on this would be that a side benefit of the problem of undocumented immigrants is that it distracts community efforts at alleviating poverty by forcing them to concentrate on immigration reform, rather than things like crime, better/safer schools, job opportunities, etc. What you've done is then divided the poor by forcing issues that affect the entire community to "get in line" behind those specifically related to immigration reform.

I mean, sure, "we're all in this together," but I simply don't buy that dealing with the problems of poverty in Anacostia are only going to be helped once we have immigration reform. If immigration reform is your focus, great. But if you're claiming to be concerned about poverty, it seems like you're exploiting the problem of poverty to drum up support for immigration reform.

Posted by: constans | August 27, 2009 3:46 PM | Report abuse

I've never said that it's all or nothing - all chips on immigration reform or another issue. That's your strawman argument. People can and are organized around more than one issue at a time.

I would argue that the current situation (undocumented workers being exploited in workplaces that provide the few jobs in low income communities) is dividing poor folks more than bringing undocumented together with documented for fair wages and decent working conditions for all. If everyone in poor communities at least earned a livible wage, this would expand the economy, create more opportunity for local businesses, give parents more time to spend with their children, improve learning environments, etc. The economic benefits of having all people documented and on a level playing field would pay off in many ways.

Posted by: mohloff | August 27, 2009 4:30 PM | Report abuse

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