Permit me to share some context before clarifying the headline.
Martin Luther King, Jr. had a legendary call for all Americans. Late summer of '63, he stood atop the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and unto the masses he proclaimed, "It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment."
Contrary to common belief, King's counsel did not begin and end with the color of one's skin, nor was it confined to the torment of a particular chapter in time. His "moment" represented myriad moments when citizens make critical choices at critical junctures. He petitioned our better nature to undo dreadful wrongs so that unalienable rights might be preserved: those are the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Yet, only five years forward, we were to witness these same rights, King's rights, murdered before our very eyes. However gruesome that act, it was far from unforeseen. For even King had all but predicted the catastrophic course decided in spite of him. And still he marched on.
America has forever been a nation of one fist against the other. The Founding Fathers etched citizens' rights into doctrine centuries ago, despite the fact they did so while pinning those of lesser ilk firmly underfoot. Lest we forget, regardless of their prescription for a better nation, it was their foot on the neck of the Native American, the slave, the woman, the underprivileged Perhaps they may have been dubbed "The Founding Family" would they have rightly embraced that which was dissimilar.
Thomas Jefferson detested the thought of women anywhere near politics, except in serving their political husbands. He was largely responsible for the Indian Removal Act that dislocated droves of "uncivilized" Native Americans. He encumbered upwards of 600 slaves, asserting that they were far inferior in body and mind. And little did we know, Jefferson was also encumbered by extreme debt. An irony beyond profound.
The disproportion of such truths to actions is inarguable, whether then or now. That said, it is equally inarguable that there are scores of nations with far fewer rations of parity and tolerance than ours. So too must it be said that America possesses a relatively robust account of "development" to which it can point with accordant pride.
But pride can be a curse. And a terrible one at that.
The "America of Now" is one far more apt to hoist historical trophies than triumph over actual tribulations. Whole tracts of life are disappearing under the weight of personal accumulation for accumulation's sake. And those extant cheers for the underdog -- the ones we so proudly deploy when defining and defending our national spirit -- are far better suited for ballpark or movie house. They just don't work in the real world.
You see, not far from that ballpark lie neighborhoods where real world underdogs must literally choose between rent or medicine, between clothes for kids or gas for the car. And behind that movie house is an alleyway where real world underdogs shiver beneath blankets at the break of winter begging for a chance to live out another season. Perhaps most sickening of all is the shrinking gap between these two sets of said underdogs. Simply put, no more checks, no more choices. No more choices, no more chances.
These are the American poor. And they are the totems of a broken nation. Their numbers are growing. Their presence is showing. And their fate is now being felt by all as we choose to step over the issue instead of reach down with a willing hand. Thus, we must invoke King's appeal once more... it would be fatal were this nation to overlook the urgency of such a moment.
Things might be quite different would we have only paid attention to the most notable reflection of our nation's Declaration... "All experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."
Having ignored such forethought, however, we are relegated to trudge among shadows of darker histories. We are now collectively stunned if not utterly seized as poverty widely wields its deadly tentacles; tentacles that have arrested every aspect of American life as we know it today.
Poverty is an America divided. Poverty is debt. Poverty is poor health. Poverty is meager education. Poverty is childhoods lost. Poverty is hunger. Poverty is criminality. Poverty is ruinous family. Poverty is the voice suffocated. The dignity denied. The one desperate option after another. Until there are no options left at all.
Most tragically, poverty is judgment. But not the judgment that is mythology of ages, the one in which the poor choose and deserve to be as such. No, poverty is our judgment, the judgment of those who have the ready means to vanquish such inequity but instead opt to turn a blind eye. That's me. And that's you. And that's the United States Government.
The longer we let poverty breed, the more it becomes the ultimate weapon in class warfare. We must not look far to see this as truth:
• One in five American children lives in poverty.
• One in seven Americans overall lives in poverty.
• One in six Americans is enrolled in an anti-poverty program.
• Families are the fastest growing segment of the American homeless.
• The number of Americans in poverty is the largest number in the 51 years for which poverty estimates are available.
• Poverty has increased across every race group barring Asian Americans.
• The lowest 20 percent of American workers earned 3.4 percent of all income generated in the United States compared to 49.4 percent of all income earned by the top 20 percent, for a 14.5-to-1 ratio, according to a Current Population Report on consumer income, titled "Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2009," released by the Census Bureau.
• Real median income remains static for American households at $49,777.
• The average compensation for a single American CEO at one of the top 500 corporations is over $9,500,000; and this during the worst Recession since the Great Depression.
• Average CEO pay is roughly 265 times the pay of the average worker today.
• Nearly 50 million Americans are on Medicaid.
• Nearly 40 million Americans get food stamps.
• The war of child poverty costs the United States about $500 billion a year, not because of the government's fight against it, but because of its neglect and its consequential cost forced upon society.
• The wars that America prefers to wage, those beyond our borders, annually cost citizens $665 billion plus an "unofficial" $200 billion for Iraq/Afghanistan; America spends as much on foreign wars as the rest of the world combined.
So, what do we need?
We need the President of the United States of America to stop eliminating the poor from the lofty speech. Over and over again, we hear about the "middle class," but we hear precious little about the low income or outright poor. Why is that?
We need a dramatic check on who owns what and why and at the expense of whom. The top one percent of the American population now owns over 70 percent of all financial assets -- an all-time high. The United States has the highest inequality of wealth in the industrialized world. And it continues to worsen. Why is that?
We need a government that stands up for those who can barely stand up for themselves. The House of Representatives just defeated a measure to reauthorize unemployment insurance for another three months through the holiday season. The Labor Department estimates two million long-term unemployed will prematurely stop receiving benefits before year-end. All but 21 members of the Republican Party voted against extending benefits until they garner tax cuts for folks making over $250,000. Why is that?
If ancestors of slaves, of the impoverished and of the otherwise generally oppressed can rise up against all odds and become leaders of the free world, leaders of global corporations, leaders of education, technology, arts and civil rights, then why is it we persist in our efforts to fail the dreams within their eyes?
How can we change? Again, what do we need?
Answer: Hollywood. Yes, you heard me. We need a Hollywood ending.
And this is where we clarify the headline.
Hollywood is as American as apple pie and an enduring national emblem for all things aspirational. From small town girl to Hollywood starlet. From nobody one day to Hollywood heartthrob the next. We know the stories all too well. Because Hollywood is all about telling stories. And selling them.
While Hollywood is rife with starlets and heartthrobs, riches and reverie, it is also a fitting instrument for convincingly spreading the message about the urgency of now. YES, there are marvelous Hollywood-supported efforts in motion via Feeding America, Habitat for Humanity, St. Judes, UNICEF and countless others. But there is no singularly focused national campaign -- or perhaps "revolution" is better suited -- to fight the deadliest of civil evils that is poverty.
What do these folks have in common? Halle Berry, Jim Carrey, Tyler Perry, Kelly Clarkson, David Letterman, Martin Sheen, Sylvester Stallone, Hillary Swank, Sam Worthingtin, Joan Rivers.
If you guessed "celebrity", sure. A no-brainer. But would you have guessed once homeless? Yep. We're talking on-the-street, in-the-shelter, all-the-way homeless. And there are plenty of other similar celeb sagas too.
Like Jewel, Rob Thomas, L'il Kim and KRS-One from the music world. John Paul DeJoria, billionaire businessman and co-founder of hair-care conglomerate, John Paul Mitchell Systems. Suze Orman, best-selling author, TV host and financial guru. And even a little known guy named Dr. Phil.
So there you have it. Poverty has NO discretion. So why should we? That's why I say, "Hollywood, let's beat the living crap out of poverty."
I moved to California to pursue "the dream." But I also moved here to give. I am privileged to have worked for Family Promise, a renowned national homeless services organization headquartered back east, and I am now engaging a similarly remarkable and vital organization named Union Station based in Pasadena, California. The efforts of these nonprofits and others like them are the kind that truly deserve the big screen.
So, Hollywood, can we make that happen? Can we join you and you join us? Can we make the year ahead the beginning of the end to poverty in our nation?
In fact, we can give you the starring role and call the feature... THE END: HOLLYWOOD'S CAMPAIGN TO END POVERTY IN AMERICA.
Lights up. Cameras on. Let's get the PSAs rolling. Let's guilt the news networks. Let's corner the politicians. Let's line up the musicians. Let's engage those annoying bloggers(!). Let's talk about this at the office, in the gym, on the bus or at the coffee shop. Let's pool our resources and fuse our ideas like never before. Let's do it together. And never look back. Until the deed is done. Because if poverty wins, we all lose.
Apologies, but permit me an ounce more about Hollywood before I close...
Last night, my wife and I went to see Inside Job, a dazzling if not frightening documentary about the greed-fueled, dogged dismantling of our nation's economy and citizenry, especially over the last 15 to 20 years. It was Thursday primetime in a popular California multiplex. The documentary had just been released.
Turns out we were the only people in a theater that seated three or four hundred.
As we exited the theater, we emerged unto a block-after-block mob scene of teens and young adults chomping at the bit to see the latest Harry Potter installment. I could only think that while the doors to their favorite fantasy screening were wide open, the doors to their actual future were closing. And closing fast.
What this generation doesn't know will surely undo them.
The bottom line view of these pictures is also emblematic of where we are as a nation.
Inside Job released to approximately 250 theaters and has grossed just over $2 million, with a $2 million production budget. It ranked 50th opening weekend.
By contrast, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows released to 9,400 screens and made $125 million (nationally and $300 million foreign) with a $200 million production budget. It ranked #1 and sixth all-time during opening weekend.
Oh, if we had only been able to use the magic of Harry Potter to foretell our future, perhaps we could have saved trillions. However, the moral of the story is: fantasy thumps reality over and over again.
Ultimately, if you think my plea outlandish, foolhardy or just plain bothersome, maybe you will change your mind 10 years hence when instead of one in seven of us living in poverty, it is one in five or four in three. Because that is the trend. hat is the reality. And maybe one of these poor will be you, as impossible as that might seem right now. After all, as we know, anything is possible in America. One more financial crisis. One job lost. One health scare. One unforeseen circumstance of any kind and "poof", you magically disappear.
It is proper and praiseworthy to help the world beyond our shores. And the world at large is certainly filled with places and people who desperately need and deserve such help. But our extended help will only become more vigorous and more valuable beyond our borders if it is first strengthened within them. America truly needs to take care of Americans first and foremost; otherwise, there will be little left to give.
So let's get going and giving, for there are people just down the road who need us. This doesn't have to be complicated.
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