A War Worth Fighting – Sunday, January 5, 2003 – Published in The Concord Monitor
● Americans must unite in the belief that poverty is an unacceptable situation.
Poverty appears to be a permanent fact of life in the United States. Poverty may be bemoaned, but few question its inevitability. It is part of the economic and political landscape, a given.
Neither political party stands for the systematic elimination of poverty. No major American political figure calls for an end to poverty. If you believe poverty should be attacked and ultimately abolished, you are outside the mainstream. You are considered unrealistic or utopian. You might be considered a crackpot.
This is especially true in New Hampshire. Our perennial animating issue is taxes, not poverty. There is a list of labels to dismiss anyone who challenges the New Hampshire status quo: tax-and-spender, big-government liberal, socialist.
Rather than address poverty, our state government stands posed to cut essential human services, using the pretext of a fiscally responsible budget. It is hard to imagine ending poverty when your state is gearing up to further shred the safety net.
Thirty-six years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached that America’s greatest problem and contradiction was that it harbored 35 million poor people at a time when its resources were so vast that the existence of poverty should be an anachronism. We have not heeded King. He was right then and he is right now. We have not followed through with a persistent war on poverty.
Instead, we have witnessed a huge backward step – an explosion of economic inequality. It is not simply that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. A declining share of income is going to middle-class families while the richest of the rich hog ever more.
The evidence for this assertion does not come from some left-wing think tank. A recent study by the Congressional Budget Office found that between 1979 and 1997, the after-tax income of the top 1 percent of families rose 157 percent compared with only a 10 percent gain for middle-class families.
There has been a dramatic shift in income to the super-rich. The total income of the wealthiest 1 percent equals that of the bottom 40 percent. Even among the very wealthy, riches are concentrating so that the very richest have more.
The writer and economist Paul Krugman says we are living in a new Gilded Age. He argues that few people are aware of how much the gap between the very rich and everyone else has widened over a short period. Krugman says America has the highest per capita income in the world because our rich are much richer, not because the middle class has done well.
In fact, the middle class and the poor have been hammered. Massive job loss, prolonged unemployment, increasing numbers without health insurance – it is all too familiar.
We need a new abolitionism to end poverty. We must persuade our fellow citizens that poverty, homelessness and gross wage inequality are unacceptable in the 21st century.
I am not advocating any brand of extremism or fanaticism. We have seen more than enough of that. We need a long-term historical perspective.
In the early 19th century, slavery was a settled institution. Leaders of all political stripes agreed that it could not be ended. Business leaders argued that the property rights of slaveholders had to be respected. The only people who believed slavery could be abolished were a handful of despised reformers.
Abolitionists were denounced for decades before the Civil War. It was politically safe to abhor abolitionists, and polite society made accommodation with slavery.
Hatred for the abolitionists went far beyond vitriolic newspaper criticism. In 1835, a mob seized and bound the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and dragged him through the streets of Boston. In 1837, another mob killed abolitionist preacher-editor Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois.
Yet somehow abolitionists did the impossible. In roughly 30 years, they reversed the verdict on slavery. It took a civil way, constitutional amendments and Reconstruction, but slavery was ultimately abolished because a group of citizens decided they would not accept it.
The fight to end racial segregation parallels the struggle against slavery. Again, an overwhelming majority accepted segregation. Business leaders invoked their sacred property rights. Owners of restaurants, hotels and stores claimed the right to serve and do business with whomever they wanted – white people only.
Segregation was the law of the land. For more than 50 years, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld “separate but equal.” A long history of disgraceful laws and court decisions reinforced American apartheid. For example, in 1908 the Supreme Court upheld a Kentucky statute prohibiting the education of blacks and whites in the same place. In 1926, the Supreme Court upheld racially restrictive covenants.
As the Trent Lott debacle has reminded us, this was a world in which Congress refused to pass a law to make lynching illegal.
Who would have believed in 1950 that segregation was on its last legs? In a relatively short historical span, the civil rights movement emerged and overcame segregation. People of remarkable courage and moral fervor stepped forward and waged campaigns of direct action.
These heroes faced a far bleaker reality than present-day opponents of poverty. Abolishing poverty should not be as difficult as overcoming slavery or segregation. Activists today do not face the threats to personal safety experienced by the abolitionists and civil rights workers.
Our task is to make poverty an unacceptable condition. History shows that poverty can be ameliorated and wage inequality can be decreased.
As New Englanders, we have the wonderful tradition of Thoreau and Emerson to emulate. go back and read Thoreau’s essays “Slavery in Massachusetts” and “A Plea for John Brown.” The inspiration and intensity of conviction are right there.