Addressing Poverty When Poverty Isn’t Cool

By Channing Kennedy Aug 31, 2009

When the recession is ‘over’ and poverty once again loses its place in our national narrative, what will become of the movement for real addressing of systemic inequities? In the wake of Obama’s absence from New Orleans during Katrina’s fourth anniversary, Leigh Graham of’s excellent Poverty in America blog maps out the bumpy road ahead of poverty advocates.

Suddenly, those rigid boundaries between hard-working "us" and an irresponsible "them" have blurred. Yet, President Obama and other prominent politicians have not used this opportunity to publicly voice support for anti-poverty policy. They may be secretly pushing through an expansion of the social safety net via the stimulus, but there’s been little explicit assertion that we’re long overdue for such an expansion, in part because of historic inequality and blocked opportunity. Does this matter? If we push policy under the rubric that we’re all in this together, and what’s good for the middle-class is good for everyone, and the poor benefit in the process – as activists should we demand a less veiled attempt to reduce poverty in the US? I’d argue yes, because it’s clear from this piece and the historical record that political framing of poverty harnesses and solidifies public sentiment. That is, even if more low-income families are benefiting from food stamps, but we’re only reporting about middle-class use of food stamps, can we expect political will to remain once the recession ends and middle-income families are back on solid ground? The recession will have the likely effect of sentencing countless families to multi-generational poverty long after it’s over, and long after families newly in crisis have regained their economic footing. What will we do then?

As Applied Research Center’s Race & Recession report details, our economy has always been rigged against communities of color. Fighting ingrainted systemic inequity is difficult by definition, but this recession might be the best chance we get in years, if we can hold our lawmakers accountable to their promises.