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Poverty's Up, Yet Still on the Back Burner

Bob Herbert

In a speech at the University of Kansas in February of the tumultuous year 1968, Robert F. Kennedy spoke of the plight of the poorest Americans, those struggling in devastated rural areas, and on Indian reservations and in the tenements and housing projects of the inner cities. He was blunt. “We must begin,” he said, “to end this disgrace of the other America.”

Addressing the myriad problems associated with poverty and joblessness was, in Kennedy’s view, “an urgent national priority.” But he went further. “Even if we act to erase material poverty,” he said, “there is another, greater task. It is to confront the poverty of satisfaction, purpose and dignity that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.”

Those were the words of a United States senator two days before he announced officially that he was running for president. Yes, there actually was a time when mainstream politicians were not afraid to speak of our obligation to extend a hand of help and friendship to those at the bottom of the economic heap, the individuals and families locked in a long and wearying fight to make it from one difficult day to the next.

We abandoned the fight against poverty and it’s been growing like an infection in an untreated wound. It’s as much of a disgrace as it was in Kennedy’s era but the willingness of mainstream politicians to speak out candidly and forcefully against it seems as old-fashioned as carbon paper and rotary phones. 

America should be ashamed.

Nearly 50 million people in this country, the richest in the world, are poor. Another 50 million, the near-poor, are just a notch or two above the official poverty line. They can feel the awful flames of poverty licking at their heels. Those two groups, the poor and the near-poor, make up nearly one-third of the entire American population.

And what are our mainstream politicians doing? When they’re not hammering the poor, mocking them, waging war on the threadbare safety net programs that help stave off destitution, they’re running as fast as they can away from the issue of poverty and from the poor themselves, running like sprinters chasing Olympic gold.

No one wants to be too closely identified with the poor.