12:21pm

Wed January 15, 2014
Can I Just Tell You?

Poverty: 'We Need To Talk About It As It Is, Not As It Was'

Finally today, I'd like to end the program where we started: talking about poverty. We, like a lot of other people in the news business have been talking about poverty a lot this week and last.

We're doing this because we have something called a news peg — which is a fancy word for a reason to talk about something we want to talk about anyway. And that news peg is the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's first State of the Union address, when he said this:

"This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America."

What followed was a major package of social programs, what a writer for the Pew Research Center called the most ambitious domestic policy initiative since the Great Depression.

And the great argument this week has been about whether it brought the poverty rate down, and if so, did it bring it down enough?

Did it save poor people or did it just trap them? And was there really ever a war, or was it just a skirmish — a halfhearted attempt that got lost in a swirl of other priorities, including the war fought with bullets and bombs?

Can I just tell you? I think we should talk about poverty.

And yes, I am biased because – hello, talk show host here - as a general rule, I think we should talk about all things that matter.

As a crusty old police sergeant once told a subordinate who wanted to withhold information from a reporter, "Give the kid what he wants. Not talking about it doesn't make it unhappen."

I think we should talk about poverty because poverty is still with us. So I think we should talk about it until it isn't. But I also think what we also suffer from is a poverty of words, of ideas, and of imagination.

The circumstances of poverty have changed in this country in a way that most of us, if we look, can see for ourselves. But the way we talk about it has not.

It seems that we are stuck in tropes from back in the day: the drug dealing layabout bum who just wants to make babies but doesn't want to work, the welfare queen, the noble striver who can't get a break. Those might be partially true, or half true, or never true — but in any case, the world has changed.

What I notice is that the labels we so often use often don't match up to what we see right in front of our faces. Today, far fewer elderly people are poor, but many more people of working age are.

Far fewer black people are poor, but many more Latinos are. Far fewer married couples with children are poor, but many more poor families are headed by single mothers.

We live in an age when poor people can have a computer, a refrigerator, and air conditioning, but still have no hope.

We're in a world where you can deliver a paycheck across the world with the push of a button; where people cross centuries in the span of a plane ride; where a girl in a poor African village powered by generators can be a world class chess champion, but a boy living in a high rise in the heart of a rich American city can feel he has no place to go.

We need to catch up. We need to talk about poverty, but we need to talk about it as it is, not as it was. Because poverty is still with us and it's not going away, unless we talk about it.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, I'd like to end the program where we started, talking about poverty. We, like a lot of other people in the news business, have been talking about poverty a lot this week and last. We're doing this because we have something called a news peg, which is a fancy word for a reason to talk about something we want to talk about anyway. That news peg is the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's first State of the Union address when he said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON: This administration, today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.

MARTIN: What followed was a major package of social programs, what a writer for the Pew Research Center called the most ambitious domestic policy initiative since the Great Depression. And the great argument this week has been about whether it brought the poverty rate down, and if so, did it bring it down enough? Did it save poor people, or did it just trap them? And was there ever really a war? Or was it just a skirmish, a halfhearted attempt that got lost in a swirl of other priorities, including war fought with bullets and bombs? Can I just tell you I think we should talk about poverty? And, yes, I am biased because - hello - talk show host here. As a general rule, I think we should talk about all things that matter. As a crusty old police sergeant once told a subordinate who wanted to withhold information from a reporter, give the kid what he wants.

Not talking about it doesn't make it unhappen. I think we should talk about poverty because poverty is still with us. So I think we should talk about it until it isn't. But I also think what we suffer from is a poverty of words, of ideas and of imagination. The circumstances of poverty have changed in this country in a way that most of us, if we look, can see for ourselves. But the way we talk about it has not. It seems that we're stuck in tropes from back in the day --the drug-dealing layabout bum who just wants to make babies but doesn't want to work, the welfare queen, the noble striver who can't get a break. Those might be partially true or half true or never true. But in any case, the world has changed. What I noticed is that the labels we so often use don't match what we see right in front of our faces. Today, far fewer elderly people are poor, but many more people of working age are.

Far fewer black people are poor, but many more Latinos are. Far fewer married couples with children are poor, but many more poor families are headed by single mothers. We live in an age when poor people can have a computer, a refrigerator and air conditioning, but still have no hope. We're in a world where you can deliver a paycheck across the world with the push of a button, where people cross centuries in the span of a plane ride, where a girl in a poor African village powered by generators can be a world-class chess champion. But a boy living in a high rise in the heart of a rich American city can feel he has no place to go. We need to catch up. We need to talk about poverty. But we need to talk about it as it is, not as it was because poverty is still with us, and it's not going away unless we talk about it. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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