January is Poverty Awareness Month

January 5, 2009 § 11 Comments

david_davenportFrom David Davenport
President and CEO —

The American Conversation that Never Happened

Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) has designated January as “Poverty in America Awareness Month.” For the next four weeks I will add my thoughts and experiences to the national conversation. This post is the first of four regarding why 37 million fellow Americans live in poverty, and what we must do about it.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

“We’ve got some difficult days ahead, but it really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.
April 3, 1968

The next day, Martin Luther King Jr. stepped out on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel, and was killed by an assassin. He was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers demanding better working conditions and a living wage. Although the work to be done in Memphis was critical, Dr. King had his sights set on the Poor People’s Campaign for Economic Justice (PPC). This project was a complex effort to bring the economic and cultural challenges of poverty in America to the forefront.

As King moved toward making the PPC a reality, he encountered criticism from supporters, elected officials and others who were by his side during the civil rights movement. There was even public criticism from within his own organization – yet he boldly, and without fear, moved forward.

Shortly after King’s death, staffers at Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) decided to press on with the PPC. In just five weeks, Resurrection City was built on the Mall in Washington, housing a diverse selection of poor people from across the country. Resurrection City, awash in a sea of mud, never successfully articulated the needs of the poor and fell painfully short of King’s ambitious vision. Two months after King’s death, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, a movement ally and presidential candidate, was also assassinated.

The American conversation never happened.

Americans care deeply about charity. We give more time, talent and treasure to the social sector than any nation on earth. That said, we continue to shy away from a meaningful conversation about poverty. We will debate solutions to the by-products of poverty – homelessness and hunger – but we are uncomfortable discussing why poverty exists and what to do about it. We hide our discomfort with conclusions drawn from economics classes that recall poverty as a necessary part of the free enterprise system. If we are really bold, we go right to the core of our American ethos and say poverty in the land of plenty is more about Darwin. The strong survive, and the weak are selected by nature (or economics) to fail. Nothing can be done to stop this law of nature, so why even try?

In his famous 1984 speech, former New York Governor, Mario Cuomo addressed this issue by saying there are those who believe “…the wagon train will not make it to the frontier unless some of the old, some of the young, some of the weak are left behind by the side of the trail. The strong — The strong, they tell us, will inherit the land.”

Cuomo goes on to challenge this belief “…we must be the family of America, recognizing that at the heart of the matter, we are bound one to another, that the problems of a retired school teacher in Duluth are our problems; that the future of the child in Buffalo is our future; that the struggle of a disabled man in Boston to survive and live decently is our struggle; that the hunger of a woman in Little Rock is our hunger; that the failure anywhere to provide what reasonably we might, to avoid pain, is our failure.”

Once again as a nation, the conversation never happens.

TD_ErinFast forward again, this time to 2005. The images of Americans suffering in the streets of New Orleans, post-Katrina shocked the world – but not necessarily  America. According to a Stanford University study “Did Katrina Recalibrate Attitudes Toward Poverty and Inequality?” the Katrina disaster did not become a watershed in the debate over poverty, but quite the opposite. The “dirty little secret” wasn’t that poverty existed in America – it was that social-Darwinism was alive and well. The people left behind in the flood, filth and insanity of New Orleans had somehow been selected. The strong were safely out of the path of the vicious storm. The weak, well, you know how it goes. You just can’t beat nature.

So, here we are, more than forty years after the failure of Resurrection City, still struggling to come to some understanding as to why, in a nation capable of feeding the world, so many of our neighbors live in fear of not having food? Why, in a nation where millions live a vile and inhuman existence, can we not bring ourselves to discuss the matter and seek solutions?

I am determined that this year, this time, “Poverty in America Awareness Month” will not pass quietly without a conversation. Let’s not wait another 40 years to be bold enough – American enough – to honestly and openly discuss the challenge of poverty in our country.

See images of Resurrection City.

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§ 11 Responses to January is Poverty Awareness Month

  • jc says:

    Great post.

  • Erica Benavides says:

    Ditto to JC’s comment.

    Looking forward to next three posts.

  • Kim Wilson says:

    Wonderfully put, David.

  • john says:

    Having a vision with drive & eloquence = leadership. Well said David.

  • A Friend says:

    You ask “Why, in a nation where millions live a vile and inhuman existence, can we not bring ourselves to discuss the matter and seek solutions?” I think part of the answer is that people are afraid. Afraid to address the issue because we are all guilty to some degree. But it is ironic that with simple education, a little understanding, and a will to live a life of principle that we can help solve the problem of poverty, and in the process rid ourselves of our fears and guilt. I also believe that part of the problem is that many truly do not understand the magnitude of the problem. I’d bet that the majority of people, when questioned about “poverty,” would immediately respond with an answer that relates to homelessness or being on welfare. They do not understand that the majority of people in poverty are working families, or are either elderly or disabled persons who can no longer work. Lack of education about the poverty issue is not really an excuse to not have a discussion because it is up to those who do know about the issue to lead the discussion and enlist the help of others so that it gets addressed in a way that results in the necessary change. I believe the discussion starts with all of us who are aware of the problem. No keeping silent should be our motto.

  • j says:

    Too many Americans believe poverty is a moral failing. Until they come to believe that poverty is situational rather than moral, we’ll continue not having this conversation.

    Shame on us.

  • Danielle says:

    The time for action is way overdue.Thank you for your post.

  • wrd says:

    Great effot to get the “conversation” started on this very complicated problem. if we can put a man on the moon, one would think we can solve any problem. Solving poverty and other social problems is not “rocket science”, its a lot harder thaan that. Looking forward to your next three posts.

  • Theresa Mangapora says:

    Great Blog David. See why you thought I might be interested (i.e. the bold theme).

    I have a framed poster of the Dom Helder Camara quote “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” It is on a wall in my office that most people who come into my office cannot see. But I see it everyday. In fact, it stares back at me everyday. The few who have seen it and taken the time to read it (mainly reps from partner pantries) either say, “huh, I never thought about that” or “they tried to do that communist thing to Obama”. Sadly, in my area, we don’t even have the understanding or the will to be bold, to ask the right questions, or reflect on why we even need to exist, or admit that in in reality, our jobs rely on there being hungry in our neighborhoods. You are right, the time to be bold, talk about a living wage, equity in education, equal pay for equal work, the plight of single mothers, the atrosity of the uninsured, is so overdue.

    If we don’t go there, we are just handing out band-aids.

  • Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. Please stay with me this month. I am going to dig deep with hopes the conversation takes us towards some things we can all do to bring change.

  • Ruth Kaplan says:

    Poverty does not exist in isolation from the rest of society. Poor and rich are merely relative terms, referring to people who are interconnected by community, culture and humanity. Poverty exists in the poor, because poverty exists in the rich. As long as we feel we cannot afford to help our neighbors, we have a poverty mentality, a poverty of spirit. As long as we are afraid of losing what we have, we are poor, regardless of how much we possess or own.

    When we are able to acknowledge and feel gratitude for what we have, we can be generous and share. When we value ourselves and our neighbors by who they are and what they do, rather than by what they own, we become rich. Rather than discussing poverty, let’s look at the attitudes we have that create poverty of mind, and the values we advocate that create poverty of spirit. Let’s cultivate gratitude and generosity in ourselves and in our community, so that the sharing becomes part of our values for ourselves, our families, and our children.

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