Youth Leading a Moral Revolution to End Poverty: A Conversation with Greg Kaufmann
"Young people possess a moral clarity and idealism that can help shape this country."
Have you ever heard the saying "moral imperative"? It's an ethical responsibility that compels one to act. I've seen it referenced a million times about getting adults to get up out their seats and vote or donate or address issues like teen pregnancy or teen drug use or teen fill-in-the-blank, but seldom about compelling us to raise our voices and act. Well, we need to act on our own behalf to end poverty.
More than 45 million people live in poverty in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and nearly 15 million are children under the age of 18. That’s 1 out of every 5 children!
Walk down the halls of your school or through your neighborhood -- yes, even the more affluent ones -- and statistically, every fifth child you see has a family who at some point had to make a choice between food and medicine, getting to work or paying the heating bill. The Census Bureau considers a family of four living on less than $23,624 to be poor.
You know that minimum wage job that you are glad you have this summer? Imagine raising a family on that.
It doesn’t matter if you live in the suburbs, the city or in a rural area, chances are you know somebody experiencing poverty. I know that I do. I know that at one point, my mom, younger brother and I did.
Electricity suddenly turned off, heat gone. After enduring cold showers for a while, heading to take another one only to find no water at all. Cupboards and refrigerator bare except for the lone packs of mashed potato mix and soy sauce. Parent holding back tears, trying to stay positive for the children. Children trying to stay strong for the parent. Counting pennies and nickels for family game night. Too young to fully comprehend. Not telling a soul. Unnecessary shame. Hidden poverty.
Whether for a short period of time because of something like a job loss or unexpected illness, or long-lasting, we need to ask ourselves why. Why is anybody experiencing poverty when America is one of the richest nations in the world and what can youth do to help eradicate it?
Greg Kaufmann is the editor for TalkPoverty.org. Also a Senior Fellow with the Poverty to Prosperity Program at Center for American Progress, he has been called “one of the most consistent voices on poverty in America.” Who better to help us figure out what we can do to help tackle this critical issue!
UJ: Greg, what led you to focus on the issue of poverty?
GK: I got into advocacy at the Center for American Progress after 6 years working as a researcher and then a reporter for The Nation magazine, including my last 2 years on the poverty beat.
I think my background led me to focus on poverty —growing up in Washington, DC and seeing clearly that we were 2 cities—one for people who were economically secure and one for people who weren’t. It struck me at a young age—maybe 7th or 8th grade—that a kid who was poor could make all of the “right decisions” and still get struck down by violence, or just not have the opportunities that me and my peers had, like going to college or having access to decent jobs. I was also impacted by the fact that my grandfather came to this country poor and was able to work and reach the middle class; I just felt like the economy had changed and that the same kind of hard work no longer guaranteed you could attain the American Dream.
Volunteering and then working at a Boys and Girls Club in Columbus, Ohio also had a huge impact on me. For all of the political talk (mostly from conservatives) about people with low-incomes being “lazy” or “lacking values”, I’d never seen so many people working so hard—two, three jobs; trying to work out childcare; trying to keep their kids and communities safe. I also had never heard parents lecture kids so much about making good choices—I can tell you it was a lot more than me and my well-off friends ever heard. Why? Because these parents knew the stakes involved in their kids making the right choices—that “wrong choices” weren’t just an inconvenience, or an embarrassment to a family—these literally were sometimes matters of life or death. So while I had always believed conservative rhetoric was baloney, I really experienced firsthand every day just how wrong they are with the stereotypes and misinformation they push.
Finally, I became a poverty reporter because in 2010 me and my editors at The Nation felt like the media generally did a bad job paying attention to the issue. It was like poverty was covered every September when the new Census data came out, and then it practically vanished from the media’s radar the rest of the year. Also, reporters rarely spoke to people in poverty themselves. We started This Week in Poverty so that our readers could learn every week about poverty and what they could do about it, and also hear directly from people living in poverty. Eventually, however, I wanted to spend more time helping people with low-incomes and other advocates tell their own stories, and get more involved as an activist, so we started TalkPoverty.org at the Center for American Progress.
UJ: There is a blame the victim mentality that exists about people facing poverty. What can readers of this blog do to help counter this mentality and negative stereotypes?
GK: People need to hold the people who spout that kind of nonsense accountable. My boss at the Center for American Progress, Melissa Boteach, has suggested that the anti-poverty community needs to learn from the LGBT community. When a politician, or member of the media, or some other high-profile figure says something ignorant, hateful, or just plain wrong about someone in the LGBT community, the response from advocates is swift, unified, and strong. So there is a price that individual pays for making wrongheaded, ignorant statements. TalkPoverty.org and our allies are working hard to develop that kind of rapid-response ability. Here is one example of TalkPoverty contributor and CAP senior fellow Joel Berg responding to FOX. And here is another in which I took on a column I found pretty infuriating by New York Timescolumnist David Brooks.
Unconventionally Jade readers should write letters to the editor, blog, tweet, make phone calls—do whatever they need to do to hold people responsible for spreading negative stereotypes. And definitely they can write me at email@example.com if they want to alert us to anything.
UJ: In that column you wrote in response to Brooks’ article, you cited the need for a moral revolution. Can you talk a little about that and what youth, in particular those like me who aren't old enough to vote yet, or may be voting in their first presidential election in 2016, can do individually and collectively to help bring about such a revolution?
GK: Brooks suggested that we need a “moral revival” in which we “hold people responsible” in order for people to escape poverty. He is engaging in the common practice of suggesting that people are in poverty due to some kind of character defect, or moral failing. He says that they “need ideals and standards to guide the way,” and that we should ask people in poverty questions like, “Are you living for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?” The piece made me really angry, so I used my column to assert that it’s the economy that is broken and causing people to sink, not some kind of moral failing, and that the real “moral revolution” that we need is about Brooks and the rest of us asking ourselves questions like:
• Do I accept that people working full-time are paid wages that keep them in poverty?
• Do I accept that workers with low-incomes can’t take a paid sick day to care for themselves or a family member?
• Do I accept that many parents can’t afford the childcare they need to go to work?
• Do I accept that our public schools are separate and unequal—with some kids forced to share textbooks while just miles away an affluent community has state-of-the-art facilities?
Even if you aren't old enough to vote, there are many opportunities to help bring change—from standing with the Fight for $15 workers, to volunteering for a campaign, to writing.
Young people possess a moral clarity and idealism that can help shape this country. Idealism is too often labeled as naïve by people who feel threatened by it—or who have lost their own idealism—but young people have played a fundamental role in this country in stopping wars, winning and expanding civil rights, and generally pushing us towards that more perfect union. So I view young people speaking out and taking action to address the injustice of poverty as critical.
UJ: Is the needle toward ending poverty moving at all or are we simply putting a band aid on the issue? What is the biggest barrier?
GK: I think the issue is moving in that there is greater recognition that too much of the wealth that workers produce flows to the very wealthy, not enough goes to everyone else—including both the middle class and people with low-incomes. People understand that wages have been stagnating for everyone except the very rich for decades. So there is a basic realization that we need an economy that is more fair.
To me, the biggest barriers are the decline in unions which makes the deck so stacked against workers; the fact that too many in the public still see people with low-incomes as “those people” even though more than 1 in 2 of us will be in poverty or near poverty for at least a year during our working years; the fact that we don’t pursue a full employment policy—that is, using the government as an employer when the private sector isn’t creating enough jobs; and that we have so much money in politics and our elections—money gives the powerful and wealthy more of a voice and more influence than average citizens. That makes it tough to create change.
UJ: Will poverty be one of the primary issues in the 2016 election? Any advice for young people on how to get their local politicians to talk and fight against poverty 365 days of the year?
GK: I think poverty and economic inequality are going to be significant issues in the election. We need to encourage all candidates for office to talk about poverty, but as I said before, we also have to hold them accountable for the content of what they say. Arm them with the information they need, and correct them when they get it wrong. I would love for young people to write, call and find all kinds of ways to demand that our representatives address poverty in our communities. One way to stay informed is to sign up for TalkPoverty.org emails. We have people living in poverty and working to address poverty writing for us every week. You can also listen to our podcast to stay informed.
UJ: What's the biggest mistake, we as a society, are making in eradicating poverty in America?
GK: Treating poverty as a moral or character defect in individuals instead of a something that arises from bad public policy choices.
UJ: Who has your biggest influence been in addressing the issue of poverty and is there a particular motto or saying that motivates you?
GK: My grandfather who I mentioned before—he said,“Just be good.”
Poverty is our moral imperative. Here are 5 things we can all do to fight poverty in our community, our country.
1. Get up to speed about the state of poverty in America by visiting www.talkpoverty.org. You’ll be able to find a lot of information, including poverty rates in your state and congressional district.
2. Write your member of Congress and ask what he or she is doing to address poverty in your community. Not sure who your member is? Find out easily at Contacting the Congress.
3. Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper about poverty in your community. You’ll educate others and, quite possibly, compel them to act.
4. Volunteer. You can volunteer in shelters, soup kitchens, community centers, after school programs, and more.
5. Share your story. We need to tell the story of poverty in America and how it’s affecting real people in local communities across the country. Statistics show the impact of poverty on health, education and jobs; however, when we combine statistics with personal stories, we paint the most compelling picture of what it means to face poverty in America.
Comment and/or tweet me @UCJadeblog to let me know which one(s) you are going to do. Let’s keep this going!