January is Poverty Awareness Month
January 5, 2009 § 11 Comments
From 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.
“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.
Fast 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.