About a month ago, I had the opportunity to spend a weekend at Harvard with a group of about 20 scholars and reporters. Many of them have worked for decades examining poverty-related issues — from hiring discrimination to segregation in housing and education, criminal justice reform to immigration, deep poverty to homelessness.
I was nervous about the trip. The combination of the venue — and the fact that I had long-admired many of the participants — led me to double-check the invite to make sure I was the intended recipient. For sure, I was the guy. So, even though my mother insisted that I needed new shoes to set foot on that campus, I packed my scuffed-up loafers with their separating soles and flew to Boston.
I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but it wasn’t this.
There was some consensus around a handful of policies that would lead to greater progress in the fight against poverty — more affordable housing and access to cash assistance, a fair wage and affordable childcare, public schools that aren’t separate and unequal, substantial investment in disadvantaged communities. But there was a question that took me by surprise. Even though they had devoted their lives to fighting poverty, some of the participants asked whether their work made any difference at all.
More pointedly, a few asked how their work can help make people in power — particularly white people — do something about poverty.
The fact is, people in power don’t take action unless they are pushed by a movement. Civil rights, women’s rights, and marriage equality all required movements. Recent legislative victories such as passing the Affordable Care Act, winning $12 to $15 minimum wages, and implementing paid sick and family leave at the state and local level — all of these were made possible through movement-building at the grassroots too. And so whether we work as reporters, researchers, advocates, or elected representatives, if we want to cut poverty in America then a key question is whether our work lends itself to building an anti-poverty movement — a movement that is desperately needed.
Despite the recent progress noted by the Census, there are still 43 million people who are officially poor. Nearly half of us are living paycheck-to-paycheck, unable to come up with $400 should an emergency arise.
With such widespread economic hardship, it’s not surprising that the people with the most immediate stakes in the fight against poverty — the poor and working class — are beginning to take action. There are signs of a nascent anti-poverty movement — from Occupy Wall Street to the Fight for $15; from the Dreamers to Black Lives Matter; from Bernie Sanders’ rise as a viable presidential candidate, to the spread of Moral Mondays, to Climate Justice.
Reporters, researchers, and others invested in this fight have the power and the resources to support these efforts. Together, our analyses can offer a portrait of who is poor and why, and explore the public policy implications; we can lift up voices and lives that are normally ignored or caricaturized by the media; we can include people living on the brink in high-profile events that explore poverty and in our advocacy efforts.
We are too often failing at this. When then-House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan held a series of five hearings on the state of the War on Poverty, 17 witnesses testified — but only one (called by the Democratic Minority) lived in poverty. A recent, all-day Brookings event on the lessons of welfare reform featured 25 speakers, but only two people of color and zero people in poverty. And at strategy meetings among well-resourced, allied NGOs, poor people are heard from far too infrequently.
This exclusion of people in poverty is not only strategically stupid — would you talk about the impact of farm policy without talking to farmers? — it also reinforces a stigma and sense of shame among people who are struggling. We are implying that they don’t matter, that they have nothing to offer, that they are flawed, that they should remain on the sidelines while more “respectable” or “respected” people make the decisions that affect their lives — and that’s a message people in poverty have been hearing loud and clear for generations.
But by simply writing or speaking the truth about poverty, we help to create a platform where struggling people can be heard; and by fighting back against the shame and stigma of poverty, we play a small role in empowering people in poverty to take action politically.
So does the work of researchers and writers and advocates matter? It sure does — especially if that work is opening new spaces for an emerging movement to grow.