I believe the war on poverty is a more American idea than the war on the war on poverty.
– Bruce Springsteen, 1996
You can’t have a United States if you are telling some folks that they can’t get on the train.
– Bruce Springsteen, 2012
Recently someone shared with me an interesting quote that t
hey came across in an article, a quote that I found to be especially resonant in this day and age. Writing for MTV News, freelance author and novelist Caryn Rose was discussing music legend and cultural icon Bruce Springsteen and his 1980 album The River.
As she explored a common theme in the five-decade arc of Springsteen’s work — the subjugation, vilification and neglect of America’s working-class and destitute populations — Rose writes that the penetrating lyrics of The River “went deep on stories about the folks on the margins — people making hard choices, bad choices, running into dead ends and still managing to find some way to go on.”
After seeing these words, I immediately thought about how often the debate on income inequality seems to focus on the plight of the middle class with scant mention of those living in poverty.
There is no doubt that the decline of America’s middle class, which Census data shows has been steadily shrinking since the 1970s, is a significant crisis. In fact, this crisis has led to an increase in the number of Americans who officially live in poverty, particularly during the last decade and a half. Yet, what still continues to worry me regarding this general discussion is the ostensible invisibility of the poor in our society.
With that said, the other thing that stood out to me when reading Rose’s quote is the idea that those relegated to the sidelines continue to “go on” in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. I think that this type of spirit and effort in the struggle to overcome poverty should be celebrated more than it is today.
At Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties, we have a tradition of featuring stories that highlight the perseverance, verve, and pride of our program participants in their struggle to lift themselves out of poverty. Many of these stories spotlight individuals and families that have been beset by generational poverty, but whose drive, determination, and aspirations for a better life have started them on a course toward financial independence. At the same time, there are others who fell into poverty during the Great Recession and also require a helping hand.
I am reminded of an individual who inherited a small family business following in the footsteps of both his father and grandfather. When economic trends in his industry rendered his business obsolete, he was forced to move back into his childhood home where he cared for his dying mother.
For the first time in his life he received public support by way of the Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). As part of these benefits he was eligible for a home energy audit that revealed that his furnace was emitting dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. After receiving a new furnace free of charge, he credited the program for not only helping him to save his home, but saving his life as well.
In considering heartwarming stories such as these, let us not forget about the millions of our fellow citizens who fight the good fight every day of their lives in a desperate attempt to escape poverty but who have not yet reached that point. Their efforts also deserve recognition and praise. They also deserve our support and access to resources and opportunities that can help in their quest to achieve self-sufficiency.
In 2005, the late Nelson Mandela told an audience in London’s famed Trafalgar Square that, “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.”
Far too many of us are currently struggling to achieve that decent life. Even more of us are perilously close to falling into the ranks of poverty ourselves. We must join together to seek justice and put an end to poverty. As Mandela said in that same 2005 speech, “Poverty is not natural. It is man-made, and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”
Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.