Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane is devoting a full hour to poverty this morning at 10 am, and I have the pleasure of being one of her three guests. So just a quick post on the excellent conference I’m attending this week in Philadelphia—I’ll write more about it over the weekend or early next week.

The promise of Beyond Hunger: Real People, Real Solutions was that it wouldn’t be a gathering of just the usual suspects—academics, advocates, government people, journalists, etc. Sure, that crowd would be there with very important contributions, but really this conference would include and largely be led by “the true experts—those who know hunger and poverty first hand.”

It has lived up to that billing.

Out of 350 participants, one-third are people for whom poverty and hunger are not abstract; it’s their struggle. They have traveled here from as far as San Diego and Sacramento, Denver, Oklahoma, New Orleans, Minneapolis, Nebraska, Texas and from up and down the East Coast. They were able to do that because people who could afford it paid just a little more than one might typically pay to attend a conference—so that scholarships could be provided. (A novel idea these days—those who can afford it paying a little more so that others might have better opportunities.)

Dr. Mariana Chilton, director of Center for Hunger Free Communities at Drexel University, which hosted the event, set a high bar for the gathering: “We aspire to create strong friendships, alliances and collaborations that break down the usual boundaries between us.”

In my opinion, this conference is giving people a glimpse of what a strong, diverse and united antipoverty movement would look like—and that’s exactly what’s needed at a moment when both parties avoid the p-word, both parties peddle the myth that welfare reform was a success, and Republicans are trying to dismantle programs that help low-income people in order to provide more tax cuts for the wealthy. 

A real antipoverty movement would be loud, inclusive, visible, and—most importantly—those who live in poverty would be front and center. 

Part of breaking down “the usual boundaries” has meant hearing the humiliation people confront constantly in the welfare system: a woman being told by a caseworker that she must not need food stamps since she purchased an item from a vending machine for her diabetic son; another with a strong work history being told that she needed to come in and do her job search if she wanted benefits—even though both of her hands had just been injured in a domestic violence incident (no guidance towards help on the domestic violence situation); another told she needed to quit pursuing her four-year degree and go into an “approved job-training program” that may or may not lead to a job which would pay her $8.50 per hour; a mother wanting to work but being told to stay home with her disabled son; a single mother with three severely disabled children, each requiring multiple surgeries, being told she needed to work thirty-two hours per week to get cash assistance. 

“I never experienced the indignity of poverty until I went and asked for help,” said a woman from Lubbock, Texas.

“These are complicated, uncoordinated, and contradictory systems, and they don’t all come together,” said Estelle Richman, former Pennsylvania Secretary of Public Welfare and currently the Senior Advisor to the Deputy Secretary at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. “It’s very easy to see why folks get so frustrated.”

There was also discussion of the links between past trauma and the cycle of poverty. Many of the organizers and presenters in the conference are in the Witness to Hunger project in which women (and now one man in the Baltimore chapter) take photographs and offer testimonials to advocate for change at the local, state and national levels.

Forty of the forty-four Witnesses in Philadelphia have experienced sexual violence, intimate partner violence, child abuse or neglect, or murder of family or friends.

“A person who has not walked a mile in our shoes or not helped anybody who’s been through these things can’t help us in the way we need to be helped,” said Witness to Hunger participant Pauline Simmons.

Chilton says in addressing poverty and hunger we need to “think beyond food and include the experience of the whole human being.”

“The relationship between food insecurity and hunger and the experience of trauma is undeniable and central,” said Chilton. “We’re still learning and recognizing. We talk a lot about the strong relationship between maternal depression and food insecurity, but there’s not enough discussion about why women are depressed.”

This gathering will end with a call to action that will test whether a real and lasting alliance is being forged here. In a couple of days I’ll write more about that, how you can get involved and some of the other ideas that are being pushed by people here in Philly—especially by people who most need us to listen and pay attention.

This Week in Poverty posts every Friday morning. Please comment below. You can also e-mail me at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter.