The Poor Among Us

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

This weekend will be marked by celebrations large and small honoring the most revered revolutionary in the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Heralded as the God-led, citizen prophet for nonviolence dedicated to building a beloved community, King helped expand the franchise of liberty and equality for African Americans.

His pursuit to elevate the plight of the economically disenfranchised in all of humanity’s stripes is part of his legacy as well.  King understood that success in getting to sit at lunch counters, once off-limits to people of color, was blunted by one’s ability to afford to dine there.

The evolution of a new agenda led by King in the autumn of 1967 called the “Poor People’s Campaign”  included demands for a multi-million dollar anti-poverty package from Congress. This would be short-circuited just months after its inception by an assassin’s calculated silencing of King. It was in the course of that fight for better wages and treatment of black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, that King’s life was cut short at age 39.

Many people tell me how perplexed they are by the muted conversation about poverty by today’s national leaders and policymakers. Mention of poverty during the last election cycle was non-existent, other than ill-conceived characterizations of those below the line. No anti-poverty agendas were brought forth or even intimations made that they’re forthcoming. Poverty is treated as an intractable problem that we feel sorry exists, and we quickly concede to political impotence.

While we remain trapped by the political morass of poverty, those sinking in it expand to greater numbers. Kentucky –  a state with more than one in four children in poverty and nearly 800,000 citizens in poverty overall — can ill afford to refuse a solutions-based dialogue.

James Ziliak, an economics professor at the University of Kentucky and founding director of the U.K. Center for Poverty Research says the Bluegrass state has the fifth highest poverty rate in the nation. He says the boom and bust cycles in manufacturing and resource extraction leave Kentucky particularly vulnerable to sharp economic downturns — such as the one from which we’re trying now to rebound.

Then there’s the issue of the “persistently poor” counties in Kentucky, of which almost two dozen are situated in eastern Kentucky. By federal definition, these areas earn that classification when they’ve been economically distressed for at least 30 years. Michelle Tooley, a religion, social ethics, and public policy professor at Berea College, says there are “scarce resources…isolation, often poor transportation, sometimes not the access to utilities. But you also have this resource gap that is more than just money.” Professors Tooley and Ziliak frame the issue further in this report.

Poverty is a multi-dimensional problem. But, it is not without solutions, as I’ve learned while producing/hosting (with Bill Goodman) a KET special that airs Monday at 8 pm ET. Community leaders, anti-poverty advocates, educators, and economists share their insights and lend recommendations on how — in the words of Dr. Martin L. King — “to make the invisible visible.”

“The Price of Poverty in Kentucky” airs Monday at 8/7pm on KET.

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