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Wanted: leaders in anti-poverty battle

Guest Blogger

During his 1968 campaign for the presidency, Robert Kennedy pounded away at the need to tackle poverty in America. When he faced indifference about the issue on the stump, he was unfazed. “If they don’t care,” he told an aide, “the hell with them.” Poverty was an issue, Kennedy realized, that needed strong leadership to effect change, as Edward R. Schmitt documents in “President of the Other America: Robert Kennedy and the Politics of Poverty,” recently released by University of Massachusetts Press. That is still the case. But where are the anti-poverty leaders of today? Here, Schmitt, an associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, assesses Kennedy’s legacy of leadership in the anti-poverty drive.

By Edward R. Schmitt

Poverty is an issue which has only found a political audience intermittently in American history – and it is one that politicians have approached warily, if at all, fearful of being labeled socialist, communist, or some other radical moniker.

Ordinary Americans have had a difficult relationship with the notion as well, because it reflects the underside of the American dream. Poverty threatens not only their daily existence, but their faith in the nation’s promise.

Back in 1966, Robert Kennedy reflected on Americans’ dwindling support for the War on Poverty when he told his friend and speechwriter Richard Goodwin: “They’re willing to give a little, to help the less fortunate. We proved that with the Peace Corps, the poverty program. People are selfish, but they can also be compassionate and generous, and they care about the country. … But if we don’t make a choice soon, it will be too late to turn things around. I think people are willing to make the right choice. But they need leadership. They’re hungry for leadership.”

Soon afterward Kennedy proposed a number of measures and a general strategy for battling poverty that would prove influential in the decades after his death. Anticipating the decline in government resources because of the high cost of the Vietnam War, Kennedy sought to guide private resources into the poverty fight. He introduced legislation offering tax incentives to draw industry into impoverished communities and encourage improvements in housing. He also spearheaded the nation’s first community development corporation, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, recruiting corporate titans to work with local leaders. Kennedy’s approach to the poverty problem was communitarian.— he sought to enlist the power centers of the larger community: business, universities, labor unions and government at all levels in aiding local communities.

Elements of Kennedy’s communitarian vision help guide conventional anti-poverty policies today. From those beginnings, community development corporations have multiplied by the thousands, and Kennedy’s proposal for deploying tax incentives was the precursor to the federal empowerment zone initiatives passed a decade ago.

While some of his policy proposals lived on, it has proved much harder to sustain the moral urgency and the spotlight he threw on poverty. Robert Kennedy’s greatest contribution on the issue was the outsized megaphone he provided for the poor in America, as he sought to become the political spokesman for what author Michael Harrington famously dubbed “the other America.”

Other politicians have attempted to re-awaken Americans to the dangers of “two Americas” in the past decade – Paul Wellstone retraced RFK’s poverty tours and John Edwards modeled his 2008 candidacy on Kennedy’s 1968 run – but none have had either the star power or the political heft necessary to move the needle on American attitudes on this difficult issue.

And historically, while poverty has emerged as a mainstream political issue only episodically, it has tended to garner widespread attention either when economic depression has made deprivation a common condition, as during the depressions of the late 19th century and the 1930s, or during periods of general prosperity when the specter of poverty in the midst of plenty has proven shocking, as in Jacob Riis’s 1890 classic “How the Other Half Lives” and in the case of Harrington’s 1962 study.)

As Kennedy suggested to Goodwin, leadership matters. Even before the severe recession of the past three years, alarming exposés of a new class of “working poor” Americans by authors such as David Shipler and Barbara Ehrenreich cautioned that a new endemic poverty, resistant to the traditional American tonic of employment, threatened to become a permanent part of the American economic landscape.

But significant leadership focusing popular attention on the problems of poor and near poor Americans has yet to re-emerge. The political will necessary to influence popular opinion and to address the growing problem of poverty in America can be renewed. Visible, national leadership on the issue is critical, and it is on this point that Kennedy’s story can be instructive.

Politicians with an eye toward their legacy would also do well to note that while Kennedy was a polarizing figure in his day, he is now often most fondly remembered for putting his political career on the line to become a president for the other America.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  August 20, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: anti-poverty battle; robert kennedy and poverty;  
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Just as Harrington's "The Other America" inspired Robert Kennedy and many other people in the US to minimize poverty in the 1960's, I think there is another book which may do the same for our present age. It is called "The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Society Stronger." It is written by two British academics/researchers, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

One of the main themes of Harrington's book was that it was a terrible scandal that so many Americans were poor in the growing affluence of the post-World War II era. On one hand we were shamed by this knowledge; and, on the other hand, we were moved with compassion and generosity to share our abundance with those who were hungry and struggling to survive.

The optimism and leadershop of the two Kennedy's and Martin Luther King and the political skill of LBJ captured the hearts and minds of a majority of people who supported historic civil rights legislation and the War on Poverty. But with the assassination of the Kennedys and King, and then the entanglement of LBJ in the Viet Nam War, the movement to minimize poverty lost its champions. No one has filled that gap since then.

Instead, the laissez-farie, self-interest based economic philosphy of Milton Freidman and his followers in business and government has won the day since 1980. We have been told that we don't have to do anything to help the poor with government as part of the solution. Instead, we have been told to let business grow and the wealthy get wealthier, and then we will all prosper, including the poorest among us...the rising tide will lift all boats. Unfortunately, as the last 3 years have shown, that approach, by itself, does not work.

But the point being made in "The Spirit Level" may be a way to tie together self-interest and the common good. The main point of the book is that the wider the economic disparities in any society, the more negative impacts that disparity has on all members of that society. Rich and poor and everyone in between have shorter life spans, more chronic illness, more mental illness, more suicides, higher crime rates, and a host of other individual and societal ills we all wish to avoid. The disparities in income and wealth in the US are among the widest in the world; and all of us are paying a very steep price as individuals and as a society because of those disparities.

"The Spirit Level" is a potential game-changer on how and why we should address the issue of poverty in our country for all of our, poor, and the great majority of us in the middle.

I hope that new champions and leaders emerge who will act on the information and some of the possible solutions in the book to make our country a better place not only for the poor, but for all of us.

Posted by: robertbeezat | August 21, 2010 9:27 PM | Report abuse

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