If Poverty Is the Question... | The Nation


If Poverty Is the Question...

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We must not let the current debate over welfare or the role of government be used to mask the grim realities of poverty. Most poor people are not poor by choice. Most would prefer to work for a decent wage. Nor can we offer a justification for the children who are born into a poverty that they did not choose or deserve, and whose conditions prevent them from gaining the skills and ambitions that would allow them to escape.

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Paul Wellstone
Paul Wellstone is a Democratic senator from Minnesota.

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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.

I am going to do everything I possibly can to start the national conversation. I am going to travel the length and breadth of this country, as Robert Kennedy did thirty years ago, and as Eleanor Roosevelt did during the Depression, to observe the face of poverty in the streets, villages and neighborhoods of those in distress. I want to dramatize their plight, to reveal for many of our fellow citizens the face of poverty as it exists at the end of the millennium.

Poverty has many faces. There are the elderly, now less poor than the rest of America because of the success of Social Security and Medicare and Supplemental Security Income, as well as our private pension system. But women and minorities among the elderly are disproportionately poor. Our challenge for the elderly is to find the right way to protect Social Security and preserve Medicare. There are the disabled, protected by the historic Americans With Disabilities Act but experiencing a backlash in recent benefit cuts. But even for those who can work, there is still very high unemployment. There are dislocated workers forced out of jobs by downsizing and plant relocation. There are women and children made poor by divorce or abandonment. There are rural poor who live far from available work, and farmers who work as hard as anyone but still can't make ends meet.

I will visit all of these and help to tell their stories. Their problems are real and pressing, and we are not doing enough about them. But there are four groups--four overlapping groups--that tend to set off the bumper-sticker talk and the political hot buttons and the simple-minded solutions. (H.L. Mencken once said, "For every problem there is a solution that is neat and simple--and wrong.") These groups are the working poor, welfare recipients, the inner-city and rural poor, and poor children and youths.

If there is any group of "deserving poor" in the United States--although that is a term I greatly dislike--it is the working poor. We have raised the earned-income tax credit substantially. We have now raised the minimum wage a little. But both are still too low, and we look the other way when it is pointed out that the lousy jobs that too many Americans have don't provide health coverage. We do a little shuffle when the real cost of child care is mentioned--a small calculation on the back of an envelope would reveal that the parents with the lousy jobs can't afford the child care, especially if they are single parents with one lousy job.

And now we are about to flood the labor market with a new supply of low-wage workers, pushed out there by the bumper-sticker command of our new welfare law to find a job, any job. The vast majority of them are women, who still earn less than men, and minority women at that, who earn less than white women, so these new workers are especially likely to end up in low-wage jobs. And elementary labor economics says they are--if anything--going to depress wages further for everyone at the low-wage end of the labor market.

Simply put, there are not enough jobs available that are geographically accessible and sufficiently undemanding of technical skills for all the long-term welfare recipients who have now been told to enter the job market or else. In real life, people of color will encounter discrimination when they try to find a job. But for a huge proportion of those who do find work, there will be a different, serious issue--how do I make ends meet? To add to the problem, in the same welfare bill there are large food-stamp cuts that by 2002 will reduce benefits by 20 percent for everyone, including the millions of working poor who get a little help from food stamps in their constant struggle to keep things together.

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