Saturday, September 24, 2011

War on the poor

When I was in graduate school I once shared a story during a speech in a class I was taking about being poor kid who was so worried about asking my parents for new sneakers that I would put cardboard wrapped in duct tape over the holes in my shoes to extend the shelf life.

I was fortunate in that, while there was a time where we didn't have a wealth of luxuries, my parents made sure I had the things I needed most. Because of that I didn't actually realize I was poor. In retrospect, I appreciate the hell out of my parents for that. It is hard to be poor, and this the weekend it got much more difficult for thousands of children from low income families who are losing cash assistance from the state.

How bad is it? At a meeting of parents I attended a couple of weeks ago a woman I know literally broke down and began uncontrollably sobbing when someone broached the subject. I was speechless -- and sympathetic. About a third of Michigan's poor families receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) welfare benefits, according to a recent study by the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute. The lifetime 48-month welfare limit cap went into effect this weekend, kicking a reported 25,000 families off public assistance.

The report also noted that the availability of welfare is not increasing relationally to the rising unemployment rate, and that is the reason I'm bothered by this move. It's easy to say, "you should be able to get off of welfare and find a job." But because we know that there are fewer jobs available these days in Michigan and more people scavenging for the paltry employment opportunities that are out there, to put that challenge on poor people now is unconscionable.

It just got even harder to be poor. I really feel for the children of those families losing benefits.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Belafonte on rights, Obama

I had an opportunity to see Harry Belafonte tonight. I have to admit that, despite all of his incredible humanitarian accomplishments, his platinum status as a recording artist, his elbow rubbing with global dignitaries, marches with civil rights icons, and those cool 70's movies with Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier, I was most interested in what he would say about President Barack Obama. He didn't disappoint.

Belafonte regaled the audience at Wayne State with stories of his time in Harlem during the renaissance, interactions with President Franklin Roosevelt and President John F. Kennedy, and work with everyone from Paul Robeson to Fannie Lou Hammer to Martin Luther King, Jr. He even sang a few lines from his signature classic. His belting of "Daaayy-Oh!" enlivened the crowd. He even took a moment to put the song about the oppressed, colonized banana plantation workers into context. That caused some to wonder why they always thought it to be such a happy song?!

It was when he suggested that Obama lost his moral compass that I became truly engaged. I respect his opinion, but disagree, in part. He said that the president has not done enough for black people or poor people. I can't agree more. But must add that no president ever has. Give credit to Lyndon Johnson for embarking on a poor people's campaign. Granted, pundits will say it was followed by a war on the poor. But I'll end my tour of revisionist history here.

Belafonte is one of many prominent black critics of the president on the lecture circuit these days, and I understand where they are coming from. I expected a bit more from him by this point. But I am willing to be patient, because I have to believe a second term, and some economic relief, will provide an opportunity to work more diligently on his social agenda. And, I'll ask, does anyone really think Mitt Romney or Rick Perry are more interested in helping minorities and poor people than the former Chicago organizer?