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Joel Shatzky

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Educating for Democracy: The 'War on the Poor'

Posted: 03/28/2011 2:30 pm

When I was coming of age in the 1960s, the Johnson Administration launched what was called "the War on Poverty." As part of its Great Society initiative, the "War" established many governmental programs such as Medicaid and Medicare, food stamps and aid to education. And, according to one statistic, poverty in the United States declined from 22 percent to 12 percent from 1963-1970 -- the greatest positive change ever recorded in such a short period of time. However, it seems that the trend has been going in the other direction, especially recently, according to Media Freedom Int'l.:

"More than 15 million Americans are unemployed, homelessness has increased by 50 percent in some cities, and 38 million people are receiving food stamps, more than at any time in the program's almost 50-year history. The rise in poverty rates from 2009 show the biggest year-to-year increase in recorded history. An additional 5.7 million people were officially poor in 2009. That would bring the total number of people with incomes below the federal poverty threshold to more than 45 million. The poverty rate will hit 15 percent -- up from 13.2 percent in 2008.

I attended a rally on Wednesday that began at City Hall Park and ended near Wall Street, in which I would estimate over 1,000 people participated, including high school students, college activists, teacher union members and those of other unions. At the rally, a number of speakers expressed their frustration with the budget cuts proposed both by the Bloomberg and Cuomo Administrations. Speakers included Kevin Harrington of the Transit Workers Union, Charles Barron and Robert Jackson of the City Council, and education and human rights supporters, as well as homeless people.

In the nearly two years that I have been covering rallies on educational issues, this was one of the largest and most broadly represented by black, Latino, white, union, parent, teacher and student groups. Now, over 45 years after the "War on Poverty" was initiated by a President raised in the political philosophy of the New Deal, we are faced with a "For the Few Deal" -- what I would call a full-fledged "War on the Poor." Certainly, the budget cuts that are being targeted right now on the city, state and national levels are aimed at reducing and dismantling programs that have a disproportionate impact on those who can least afford to lose them.

There were many examples of the costs of this "War" that were cited by the speakers, such as Harrington, who described the Wall Street financiers as "Barbarians at the Gates" and urged the crowd to demand that "the rich pay for their crisis." And Geoff Kurtz, the head of the college teachers' union Professional Staff Congress (PSC) at Borough of Manhattan Community College exhorted the rally members to "stand together... We, the people, are under attack... since the wealthy are not acting responsibly by undermining the 'public good.'"

This brought to mind the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, which states:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

I believe that insuring "domestic tranquility" and promoting "the general welfare" of our society did not mean destroying them. That seems to be the objective of the governors of a number of states including Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey and New York who impose "fiscal austerity" on the poor and ignore the need for the social justice of "shared sacrifice" for those who can most afford to make it.

With such "class warfare" chants as "Tax the Rich," school-aged activists, middle-aged unionists and semi-retired teachers such as I marched, accompanied by a motor cycle escort of New York's finest toward Wall Street. And as we marched, I wondered at how effective such demonstrations can be. There have been a number I've attended that addressed the issues of charter school incursions into district schools, budget cuts for educational programs, increases in class size, the demand to remove Chancellor Black, the need for greater support for "special needs" students and a host of other issues. These seem to me to be imperative issues needing to be addressed if, as Mayor Bloomberg has often declared in the past, the NYC schools have experienced a "positive transformation." In my opinion, the Bloomberg Administration has been conducting its own "war on the poor" in the guise of "educational reform."

Yet how long can a "war on the poor" be waged before that war is expanded to include the working class, the middle class and, finally, all but those who have led this war against establishing an economically just society? I recently talked with an acquaintance who works in the financial industry on Wall Street. I presented many of the arguments I often give on my blogs for a need to realize that our present economic system is geared into driving this planet into oblivion, at least for the human race. I was surprised that he agreed with all my premises but explained that the people he deals with are as addicted to this form of economic banditry as are addicts to drugs or liquor. How many rallies, demonstrations, petitions and conferences -- many of which are no longer reported in the local media, as if they never happened -- is it going to take before the political establishment declares a cease fire in this war? Another 1960's national demonstration? Another Egypt? Another Libya?