A Poverty Of Leadership

By Leonard Fein

Published October 14, 2005, issue of October 14, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Here is a story. It is a story about what the media can accomplish and what intellectual curiosity in high places can produce, and how a crisis that is not an “Act of God” comes to be recognized and to galvanize a nation.

In 1960, during his campaign for the presidency, John Kennedy visited the Appalachians. According to all reports, he was deeply shocked by what he saw there: a level of poverty and hopelessness he had not before imagined.

But presumably the shock wore off as other issues, domestic and foreign, displaced it — until some of his advisers read Harry Caudill’s “Night Comes to the Cumberlands” when it was published in 1963, and many of them read Homar Bigart’s first-page article in the Sunday New York Times of October 11, 1963, just a month before the president was assassinated. The article was about the grim winter that awaited the Kentucky coal miners. And then, of course, there was Michael Harrington’s “The Other America,” which the president himself read. And quite suddenly, the president defined a national crisis.

Then, just four months after Lyndon Johnson came to the Oval Office, the new president declared a war on poverty, telling Congress: “What you are being asked to consider is not a simple or an easy program. But poverty is not a simple or an easy enemy. It cannot be driven from the land by a single attack on a single front. Were this so, we would have conquered poverty long ago. Nor can it be conquered by government alone…. Today, for the first time in our history, we have the power to strike away the barriers to full participation in our society. Having the power, we have the duty.”

And so the Office of Economic Opportunity was established and community action programs were launched and Headstart was born. Notwithstanding the obvious fact that we did not win that war, that we were defeated and not long thereafter abandoned the battle altogether, the effort gave birth to a new generation of activists and leaders all across the land.

There were some writers, a man named Ted Sorenson, a few professors on the Council of Economic Advisers. There was Kennedy, a child of privilege with no compelling record of concern for poverty but with eyes and ears, and a personal history of pain, loss, heroism and eventually heart, as well. And there was Johnson, who’d grown up in a home on the banks of the Pedernales River that lacked electricity and indoor plumbing, in a family so poor that he once said, “Poverty was so common we didn’t know it had a name” — a man much larger than life in both his virtues and his faults, but ever sensitive to the needs of the left out and the locked out.

There was actually a bit more to it than that. The hugely disturbing issue was what was then known as “the Negro problem.” But there wasn’t the glimmer of a prospect that Congress would approve a program intended to combat directly the abysmal social and economic conditions of black America. So part of the motivation for identifying poverty as a national crisis was to find a way to address the Negro problem by hiding it within a far larger context.

Fast-forward to 2001, when Barbara Ehrenreich published her “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America,” essentially a new generation’s take on “the other America.” Ehrenreich’s book is very different from Harrington’s; it has more in common with Upton Sinclair, who stunned the nation in 1905 with his eyewitness description of Chicago’s slaughter yards in his book, “The Jungle.”

Ehrenreich’s is the report of her underground journalism — of what she experienced while living as an “unskilled” worker in Florida, Maine and Minnesota, working as a waitress, nursing home aide, cleaning woman and Wal-Mart “associate.” It is a heartbreaking (and altogether engaging) account of what it is like to try to get by on the low-wage jobs worked by some tens of millions of Americans.

It’s quite likely that no one in the White House read it. It is a safe bet that President Bush did not read it. And it is an obvious certainty that even if he did, he elected not to shape social policy in response. Only in the wake of Katrina did this president finally address, however fleetingly, the ongoing scandal of poverty in America, the unsolved problem of race.

Well, there is a lot on the president’s plate. On October 6 — one day after Vice President Dick Cheney, in describing what he termed our “duty” in Iraq, told us that “it will require decades of patient effort” — the president himself sought to lay out the philosophical rationale for the war. In what was described beforehand as “a major address,” the president noted “the calling that came to us” on September 11, 2001, and promised that “we will never back down, never give in and never accept anything less than complete victory” in Iraq.

Scary words those, but fear not: While patience is required, “our coalition, along with our Iraqi allies, is moving forward with a comprehensive, specific military plan. Area by area, city by city, we’re conducting offensive operations to clear out enemy forces, and leaving behind Iraqi units to prevent the enemy from returning.”

All of which is so very far from the truth we read in our newspapers every day that it occurs to me we ought be thankful that this president has not seen fit to declare war on poverty, as well.






Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.