Quantcast

If Poverty Is the Question... | The Nation

  •  

If Poverty Is the Question...

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

What does it mean to be poor in America? We can offer no single description of American poverty. But for many, perhaps most, it means homes with peeling paint, inadequate heating, uncertain plumbing. It means that only the very lucky among the children receive a decent education. It often means a home where some go to bed hungry and malnutrition is a frequent visitor. It means that the most elementary components of the good life in America--a vacation with kids, an evening out, a comfortable home--are but distant and unreachable dreams, more likely to be seen on the television screen than in the neighborhood. And for almost all the poor it means that life is a constant struggle to obtain the merest necessities of existence, those things most of us take for granted. We can do better.

About the Author

Paul Wellstone
Paul Wellstone is a Democratic senator from Minnesota.

Also by the Author

The elections of 2000--resulting in the election of George W. Bush to the presidency, a historic 50-50 split in the Senate and a reduced Republican margin in the House--have supplied the basis for countless commentators to intone that Democrats must operate "from the center" or else face political annihilation. Progressives have heard this tune often enough over the past decade, invariably following every election. It seems that regardless of whether Democratic fortunes are up or down in any given year, the lesson drawn by inside-the-Beltway pundits is always the same: Operate from the center. It's easy to dismiss this stale conventional wisdom, but in the aftermath of this unusual election many progressives are legitimately wondering about the prospects of a progressive politics.

The American people do want us to govern from the center, in a sense. But it is not the center the pundits and politicians in Washington talk about. Citizens want us to deal with issues that are at the center of their lives. They yearn for a politics that speaks to and includes them--affordable childcare, a good education for their children, health and retirement security, good jobs that will support their families, respect for the environment and human rights, clean elections and clean campaigns.

One thing this election confirmed is that progressive politics can be winning politics. The public is clearly center-left on the most important issues: campaign finance reform, education, healthcare, living-wage jobs, trade and the environment. And there can be no doubt that Al Gore's championing of ordinary people over powerful interests gave a postconvention boost to his sagging candidacy. Progressive populism responds to the widespread awareness that large forces in our economy have too much power and ordinary people have too little.

Another critical lesson of this election is that progressive constituencies cannot be ignored. Union households, African-Americans and Hispanics were crucial to Democratic mobilization and turnout. It has become increasingly implausible to argue that Democrats must distance themselves from working people and the disadvantaged in order to win elections.

Yet the politics of our country, strangely, is center-right. The cruel irony is that George W. Bush won the presidency, in good part, by campaigning on Democratic issues--investing in children, education, prescription drug costs, healthcare and Social Security. His "compassionate conservatism" praises local volunteer efforts by ordinary citizens yet rejects the notion that government can make a positive difference when it comes to the most pressing issues of people's lives. This is a fine philosophy if you're a large corporation or wealthy, but not such a great deal if you're a working family.

Moreover, President Bush's agenda is bold and clear: $1.6 trillion in tax cuts flowing mainly to the wealthy, which will erode our country's revenue base and thus bar major investments in childcare, education and healthcare; a direct assault on environmental and workplace health and safety standards; massive new Pentagon spending on unworkable missile defense; the privatization of Social Security and Medicare; and an open challenge to Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to choose. There is more to the Bush agenda, of course, but this much ought to be enough to galvanize progressive forces around the country.

The problem is that all too often progressives have been better at denunciation than annunciation. We need both. People are as interested in what you're for as what you're against. With a unified GOP preparing to take the reins of a new administration, now is the time for progressives to put forward new ideas and new leaders. We need to take stock, compare notes, support one another and begin building today a winning progressive politics for tomorrow. Progressive politics is a winning politics so long as the central focus is on workaday majority issues.

Progressive politics is successful when it is not top-down and elitist and when it respects the capacity of ordinary citizens. That is why the impetus for change must come from outside Washington. There are three crucial ingredients to democratic renewal and progressive change in America: good public policy, grassroots organizing and electoral politics. Policy provides direction and an agenda for action; grassroots organizing builds a constituency to fight for change; and electoral politics is the main way, in the absence of sweeping social movements, that we contest for power and hold decision-makers accountable for progressive public policy. These ingredients are linked like the three legs of a stool.

As important as new ideas are, another think tank or policy institute not connected to local grassroots organizing will not suffice. Many of the discussions I have had so far in the progressive community have focused on creating a new organization as a counterweight to the Democratic Leadership Council. I am sympathetic to these efforts. Without them, the DLC moves us toward a Democratic Party that gives the country what the eminent political scientist Walter Dean Burnham calls "the politics of excluded alternatives"--what Jim Hightower calls "downsized politics." I am all for representing the democratic wing of the Democratic Party. But progressive politics must draw its energy and ideas from local citizen-activists. Too often we have failed to make that critical connection.

On February 28, the Campaign for America's Future will hold a conference of citizens' organizations and activists in Washington to draw a blueprint for a campaign to fight for economic and social progress. I am excited about participating in this gathering, which will be an important first step. There must also be regional gatherings held around the country to involve people in a meaningful way in an inclusive effort to create a progressive politics. As a Midwesterner, I am particularly sensitive to an exclusive focus on East and West Coast gatherings.

We must recognize that there is a wealth of effective labor, community and citizen organizing going on all across the country. The Service Employees International Union is showing the way by organizing a grassroots campaign for universal healthcare. The grassroots campaign for clean money/clean elections is our brightest hope for political reform. The nationwide grassroots campaign for a living wage has supplied new energy to the struggle against inequality. And the Seattle Coalition of trade unionists, environmentalists, human rights advocates, family farmers and people of faith is providing a democratic counterweight to corporate-led globalization.

Even so, I often ask myself, "Why doesn't the whole equal the sum of its parts? How does this organizing translate into more national clout for a progressive politics?" If we are to make this grassroots politics part of an effective national politics, grassroots leaders must be included. We must reach out to these leaders, including those disenchanted with party politics. A lot of these leaders' energy is focused on progressive issues, not party politics. Likewise, most citizens are not interested in party strategies; their politics is much more concrete and personal. If we don't speak to the concrete and personal issues that affect people's lives, we will miss out on some of the best opportunities for organizing people.

We need to build a progressive force that does a lot of organizing within the Democratic Party--especially candidate recruitment and elections. But this cannot be the only goal. This new force must not only introduce new and exciting perspectives into the political dialogue of our country; it must also recruit candidates; provide training, skills and resources for successful campaigns; build an infrastructure of field directors and campaign managers to support progressive candidates; have a savvy media presence; apply effective grassroots organizing to electoral politics; and otherwise build political leadership at the local, state and federal levels of government.

This is more a democratic than a Democratic challenge, though I hope there is a strong connection between the two. It is a challenge that is certainly bigger than any one leader or campaign, and it will require progressives to work together and to pull in the same direction. But building such a grassroots-based effort to advocate effectively for the progressive agenda, and to put more progressives in office at every level and across the country, is a goal worth fighting for.

As I travel across the country, I am often asked why progressives should support Bill Bradley for President, as I do.

More than 35 million Americans--one out of every seven of our fellow citizens--are officially poor. More than one in five American children are poor. And the poor are getting poorer. In 1994, nearly half of poor children under the age of 6 lived in families with incomes below half the poverty line. That figure has doubled over the past twenty years. The number of people who work full time and are still poor has risen dramatically as well. In 1975, 6 percent of young children who lived in families with one full-time worker were poor. By 1994, that figure had gone up to 15 percent.

Poor people are increasingly hemmed into poor neighborhoods, with everything that entails: poor schools, crime, violence, lack of accessible jobs and all the rest. The number of people living in concentrations of poverty (in neighborhoods of more than 40 percent poverty) went up by 75 percent from 1970 to 1980 and then doubled between 1980 and 1990. More than 10 million Americans (that constitutes about 4 million poor families) now live in very-high-poverty neighborhoods.

Minorities are poorer than the rest of Americans: 29.3 percent of African-Americans and 30.3 percent of Hispanics were classified as poor in 1995. Female-headed households are even poorer--44.6 percent of the children who lived in such families were poor in 1994, and almost half of all children who are poor live in female-headed households.

It's an old saw that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. For nearly two decades that cliché has been a painfully demonstrable fact. Nearly all of America's economic growth has benefited the wealthiest among us, and the tiny slice of the pie allotted to the poor has actually gotten smaller. From 1977 to 1992 the richest 1 percent of Americans gained 91 percent in after-tax income, while the poorest fifth lost 17 percent of their income. The top 1 percent's total income equals that of the entire bottom 40 percent of the population.

I will be the first to say that adults in our society need to take responsibility for themselves if they possibly can. But until we come to a real understanding of the structural problems in our economy and society that are getting in our way, we will continue to legislate by bumper stickers and slogans. We need to have an honest national conversation, and an honest conversation in every community, about what is really going on, why we face the unacceptable level of poverty and near-poverty, and what we are going to do about it.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.