Wednesday, November 30, 2005

convergence: persuasion and poverty

Two nights ago, Brian McLaren made an insightful comment about how many people have sought to effect change in this country by appealing to legislators and the courts rather than other means such as persuasion or civil disobedience, the marks of great historical movements around the world.

Last night John Edwards gave a talk at Trinity University about how poverty is the greatest moral issue of this generation, and he appealed with very persuasive words, stories, and charisma to those of us who were present to see this issue as the test of American character and leadership for a watching world. He is trying to start a movement no less significant than the ones my parents' generation started in the 60s that radically improved civil rights for minorities and lifted millions out of poverty.

Sen. Edwards made the oft-cited observation that poverty is not racially neutral in the US--in fact, according to a study he cited, the average net worth of an African-American is $6K, Latinos $8K, while for whites it is almost $80K!! He also made several specific suggestions for policy changes that would not only support the efforts of the poor to find and keep work, but also change the complexion of our communities. He argued that if we truly believe that all people have equal inherent worth, we cannot allow the poor to live segregated from the rest of society. So, he proposed that instead of building separate Section 8 housing, we ought to allow people to use those housing vouchers to move into existing middle class communities. I don't actually know the current rules for Section 8 vouchers, but this to me seems like a logical yet radical step in the process of addressing the problem of poverty, which, as I have written in this space before, is often profoundly relational.

Sen. Edwards made another point worth repeating, which is that many of us (including me) sometimes make the mistake of seeing our help for the poor simply as charity rather than justice. Charity might be the appropriate word in a few situations, but if for people who are able and willing to work to be unable to provide for their families because their wages are too low is simply unjust and should not be tolerated.

I agree, and I hope the people who heard Edwards speak listened and will respond.


Real Live Preacher said...

I was there. Sitting a little behind you with Rudy. Very enjoyable and got me thinking about a number of things. Like you I was struck by the idea of changing through peaceful protest and careful living instead with legislation. At least you start with peaceful living even if you end with legislation.

I particularly liked his comment that the liberal vs. conservative struggle that is taking place in so many denominations is the Cold War of the church.

nicapam said...

I saw you and Rudy--wish we could have chatted after the event. I hope you'll join us in January when we start meeting again.

The polarization Brian described concerns me greatly. But I am hopeful that, through people like him and Jim Wallis, some bridges can be rebuilt. There is a great need for healing within the church.

thecuckoo said...

I suppose I'd argue that persuasion and civil disobedience have been the "hallmarks of social change" so often because they've generally been used on behalf of those who don't have much other political and social agency.

Granted, the US has more than its share of influence peddling, but the citizenry still has some expectation of being heard in the context of the current system.

Also, I'm honestly curious how those techniques would be used to combat poverty. The proposal that Edwards put forward is clearly a part of the legislative/legal process. (And I should point out that my last two apartments here in NoVa were both mixed housing: some at market rates, some at subsidized ones.)

nicapam said...

I agree with your first point. In general, people use the means they have to effect change. Sometimes persuasion and civil disobedience get the attention of other citizens and government and sometimes they don't.

I should clarify that McLaren did not say that appealing to legislative action or the courts should be excluded from one's tactics in changing society. His point was just that a better starting place for many issues is dialogue with your neighbor and in your local community. The national rhetoric on so many issues is so polarizing that people aren't even really talking or listening to each other.

Edwards' proposals (which included increases in the EITC, section 8 voucher flexibility, more transportation and child care assistance for the working poor, and greater investment in early childhood programs) do involve government action, but rather than simply lobby the government himself for those things and leave it at that, I think he is trying to raise awareness around the country about the problem of poverty, which in the long run may do more good. If more people understand that we all have a stake in what happens to the poor, not only will there be increased pressure on the government to employ better policies, there will also be a resurgence in local political and social action to find private sector resources and strategies for addressing the local issues caused by poverty.

I live in mixed housing too. To create more of that kind of housing for poor people has a qualititative benefit that may be difficult to measure, but I am sure there is a quantitative benefit too because when people care more about where they live they will tend to treat that place better. Also, when people live in more diverse socio-economic neighborhoods, it provides opportunities to develop better social networks which can lead to better economic opportunity.

I know we don't see these issues exactly the same, but thanks for your stimulating comments, my friend. : )