How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Opinion: America's core problems remain escalation of poverty, unequal distribution of income

The Times of Trenton Newapape
By Irwin Stoolmacher

This column started out as my “Pie-in-the Sky Progressive Wish List for 2013.” A partial list reads:

1) Reduce the influence of money in politics;
2) Figure out a way to educate the children of our cities; and
3) Reduce unemployment and the number of folks who need food stamps.

When I reread it, it depressed me, because I realized that not a single item had any chance of happening, given today’s polarized political environment.

I thought about whether there is an underlying issue at the root of the above problems. I think there is. It’s the escalation of poverty and the increasingly unequal distribution of income in America.
smiley-west.jpg In "??The Rich and the Rest of Us"? Tavis Smiley, left, and Cornel West, right, are on target when they write: "??What's missing in today's political arena are bold advocates for the poor who will risk careers, stature and political offices to be their brothers'?? and sisters' keepers." file photo

In “The Rich and the Rest of Us,” Tavis Smiley and Cornel West are on target when they write: “What’s missing in today’s political arena are bold advocates for the poor who will risk careers, stature and political offices to be their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Also absent is the courage to stand against powerful multinational corporations, Wall Street elites and a social-political system that blindly favors the rich and the lucky over everyday people. ... ‘Employing the poor and eradicating poverty’ is verbiage that has not been heard in the White House since President Lyndon Johnson occupied the Oval Office.”

In the new book “Moyers on America,” Bill Moyers wrote the following about the growing disparity of wealth in our nation: It is “almost entirely off the screen of public debate. Only a rare reporter ... writes about how changes in the political process have strengthened the power of the affluent and eroded the power of the poor, the working class and lower-middle class. These are not the subjects wealthy contributors want their politicians to talk about, and journalists who work for the mainstream corporate media lack the independence to make such issues the stuff of news.”

The “P” words — “poverty” and “the poor” — rarely are uttered by politicians today. Like “hunger,” which has been replaced by the sanitized term “food insecurity,” the “P” words have been replaced with “V” words: the “vulnerable” and the “victims.”

Nowadays, if we hear the word “poor,” it is with the adjective “new” in front of it. Vicki B. Escarra, former president and CEO of Feeding America, our nation’s network of food banks, recently indicated that there are now approximately 50 million Americans who are hungry and who do not know where their next meal will come from. She speculated that part of the increase comes from the “new poor” – middle-class Americans unexpectedly shoved into the ranks of the poor due to the recession.

A disproportionate percentage of the new poor are whites, while a disproportionate share of the “old poor” are blacks. I suspect that if the word “poor” finds its way into future presidential campaigns, it will more than likely be tucked within safe sound bites that affirm a candidate’s commitment to address the needs of the shrinking middle class, renamed the “new poor.” Within today’s toxic political environment, how might we grapple with issues of escalating economic inequity? My suggestion is one of the 12 poverty-changing ideas contained in Smiley and West’s book. The authors call for a White House conference on the eradication of poverty.

Tavis and Smiley indicate that the president should “summon the best and the brightest from diverse viewpoints to seriously explore how we end poverty — now. Those who participate will signal to the nation and the world that America is serious about establishing fundamental fairness in our society.”

While talk is cheap, I like the idea of a White House conference on the eradication of poverty. The mere fact that the conference takes place would, at least, be an acknowledgement that poverty is a major problem and that something must be done to close the income inequality gap between the rich and the poor, which is wider than it has been at any time in the past 40 years. We can’t solve a problem until we at least acknowledge that the problem exists.

One of the keys to the success of such a conference would be attracting big-picture transformational thinkers from both the right and the left and those who have practical in-the-field experience developing programs that address and overcome extreme poverty. It is important that experts who have firsthand knowledge of and intimate experience with the circumstances and problems faced by the poor are included. Then, the findings should be vetted, relatively quickly, by a blue-ribbon bipartisan committee made up of acknowledged leaders from business, government and the nonprofit sector.

The goal of the conference, patterned after the White House Conference on Civil Rights and the ongoing White House Conference on Aging, should be nothing short of developing bold plans that address the doomsday outcome that Smiley and West set forth: “As hard as it is for us to accept, with the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, and the class divide getting wider, there is very little reason not to believe that America could one day implode under the weight of escalating poverty.”