Understanding the Nature of Poverty in Urban America

By James Jennings | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VII
How Have the Poor Utilized Political Mobilization to Fight Poverty in the United States?

Poverty has been created for us by an irresponsible government; a government that puts far more money into death than into life; a government that speaks of a kinder gentler time then kills off its infants, women, children and elders...Poverty itself has become so acceptably institutionalized that we don't bat an eye anymore as we step over the bodies. Some of us get angry. All of us must become more angry, more visible and more vocal in our demands for fairness. To do less is a liberal copout. Maybe even a sin. So we must all speak out and be prepared for the hostility that follows.

Kip Tiernan and Fran Froehlich Poor People's United Fund ( 1990) Boston, Massachusetts

In the last two decades many in the academic community, as well as in the mainstream media in the United States, have overlooked or de-emphasized how the poor and their own organizations have attempted to mobilize themselves politically in order to advocate policies and strategies for the elimination of poverty. As Robin D. G. Kelley argues, much of social science has tended "to focus on policy issues rather than on the lives and struggles of the poor themselves. The end result has been a failure to take into account opposition and human agency on the part of the poor. In particular, most social scientists overlook the role(s) of ideology and consciousness, the formation of oppositional movements among the inner-city poor, and various forms of individual and collective resistance." 1 Concomitantly, many researchers study poverty as if it had nothing to do with the particular distribution of political power in society. A recent series on poverty by The New York Times illustrates these kinds of oversights. Although the reporters for this series did point out that the "problem is not just one of policy but also one of politics," various attempts by poor people to utilize political power to reduce poverty were not raised in any of the three articles. 2 Perhaps the closest this series came to the relationship between political power and poverty was an allusion to the "empowerment" efforts of the Bush administration to enhance the choices available to the poor. But calls for the empowerment of the poor, as defined by current national efforts, are very different from the generating of political strategies and the mobilization and development of programmatic initiatives directly by the poor.

Yet, as stressed by U.S. Congressman Esteban Torres, the role of political power and whether poor people are politically organized are crucial factors in how a government responds to poverty: "There is

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