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Few American issues are surrounded with as many myths and stereotypes as poverty -- misconceptions that distort both American politics and our domestic policy making.
On July 28, nearly 100 people attended a panel, “The War on Poverty: Is Every Lawyer a Soldier, or Are We Tilting at Windmills,” in the American Bar Association’s Washington office that offered insights into the causes of poverty, an assessment of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 50-year-old “War on Poverty,” and action steps that lawyers, advocates and policymakers could take to help alleviate the problem.
The discussion was sponsored by the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty and Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities. It was co-sponsored by ABA entities, including the Commission on Disability Rights,Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants and the Forum Committee on Affordable Housing and Community Development Law.
Thomas M. Susman, director, ABA Governmental Affairs Office, and moderator of the panel, started off the discussion with a provocative question: “Why should lawyers care about the poor?”
“Because we are them,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby. “Poverty undermines and erodes our sense of community.” Campbell is the author of “A Nun on the Bus: How All of US Can Create Hope, Change and Community.”
Because it is “morally unacceptable” that the richest nation in the world should tolerate 15 million families with income below $9,500 a year, said Peter Edelman, faculty director of the Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Law at Georgetown University Law Center. Edelman, who has worked in all three branches of the federal government and at the state level as well, is author of “So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America.”
Anthony Cook, a law professor at the Georgetown University Law Center and author of “The Least of These: Race, Law and Religion in American Culture,” shared perceptions of race and poverty. The misperception that most individuals in poverty are nonwhite undermines our ability to come to grips with poverty and “undermines our democratic institutions,” he said.
Poverty is counter to America’s democratic commitment to equality because the poor aren’t assured of “equal access to economic opportunity,” said Johnathan Smith, assistant counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.
The “War on Poverty,” Edelman said, had been successful in some areas, especially in reducing poverty among the elderly and providing food for young children.
Susman presented conservative arguments about poverty, including the notion that poor people lack motivation, fail to work hard and make poor decisions. In addition, they have prescribed marriage as a way out of poverty, noting the large number of poor single mothers.
Cook said that economic instability undermined marriages, even when they occurred. And Sister Campbell noted that couples were able to work out issues of infidelity easier than economic ones.
Edelman addressed Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposal for block grants to the states to address poverty. Edelman suggested that putting food stamps, and other programs, into a block grant would undermine flexibility because people are now automatically eligible for some relief when they lose a job or their income drops sharply. States are likely to have different bureaucratic requirements, which would slow delivery of assistance.
Cook noted that government aid to the poor is declining and those organizations that help the poor “cannot be totally dependent on federal funds… but must create alternative and multiple streams of income.” He said marginalized communities must find ways to become self-sufficient.
Smith said that while working on behalf of the poor with a full-time job might be difficult, there were many opportunities for lawyers to get involved in issues of poverty.
Panel members concluded that ultimately, poverty is a result of economic and political status rather than individual shortcomings. The solutions to poverty are to be found in what is important for the health of any family — having a job that pays a decent wage, having the support of good health and child care and having access to a first-rate education.
These policies can become a reality as the nation truly understands that poverty is an issue for every American and lawyers have a role to play in that reality.