January 21st

By: Karenna Schiff

January 21, 2013

Today, The Poverty Initiative met with people from this northeast Pennsylvania community to move towards changing the system that keeps so many without fulfillment of basic needs like housing, child care, health and food. Frank from Putting People First spoke about “breaking down isolation” as a foundational step in this movement, and people shared experiences and feelings towards that end. A common thread was the experience of being scorned, blamed or looked down on for being poor. “They make it seem like its a crime,” one man said, “Its up to us to restore our faith in ourselves.” The conversation brought to mind a contrasting moment from yesterdays visit to a quiet neighborhood that had recently had a gas processing plant imposed on it (after a cursory, rigged “comment period”). One of the neighbors, Kim, related to us how she put up a Facebook post about living with the noise, vibration, and constant threat of explosion and pollution. No one responded. We live in an age that is hyperconnected, yet lacking in real human togetherness. The system that profits from that plant (which runs by machines and computers) depends on the illusion of democratic power and the reality of people alienated from each other. The fact that is is indifferent to destruction of the earth is not coincidental to its indifference to people. It was a startling and stark image.

Today is both MLK day and Inauguration day and we are overwhelmed with epic historical echoes. The first African-American President delivered his second Inaugural with allusions to King and Lincoln (touching Bibles used by each of them). “Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free,” Obama said, echoing Lincoln in 1865. One focus of this trip is to glean historical lessons, specifically looking for inspiration from the fight against slavery for today’s fight against poverty. A close look reveals importance of movement from the ground up to challenge to challenge a social structure that benefits the few at the expense of the many. Any leader’s perspective and intentions must be understood in the context of what is the most palpable popular will.

In today’s NYT, Joseph Stiglitz writes that “The magnitude and nature of the country’s inequality represent a serious threat to America” but we have not been able to do anything significant about it. He reminds us that in 2009, bailout money poured into banks while unemployment went up, depressing wages and disabling people from investment in their own family’s futures. We could have instead rebuilt economy from the bottom up. We missed an important opportunity, but we still can change direction. To do so, we need a comprehensive political agenda that includes Stiglitz’s suggestions of “significant investments in education, a more progressive tax system and a tax on financial speculation” but we also need a fundamental shift in the national conversation to manifest “we the people” as the real holders of power.

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