News and Tribune

March 7, 2013

ANDERSON: Politics and poverty: An activist’s perspective

By BARBARA ANDERSON
Local columnist

— As I listened to the discussion on sequestration all week last week, my mind wandered back to the Draconian cuts of the 1980s. They were nothing compared to what happened last week. 

The contemporary version of the poor house was born through the cuts of the Reagan era in 1983. Yes, we can look at one president in our lifetime who can claim responsibility. That will make a few angry, but it is nonetheless true.

Mental health centers were stripped, as were hospitals and people who were not equipped to be “outside” were set out with absolutely no community services to provide assistance or awareness for the communities that were so dramatically affected. Poverty was targeted, as were the people who lived in poverty. 

“The Welfare Queen” was born, the “nonproducers” became a reality and compassion for the poor took a hiatus. It was not a good time to be working in human services. The crowds were long, people were desperate — they often fought over cheese in the food line. I know — I was in the back of the semi truck handing it out. 

Those serving the poor were targeted as well. Community Action agencies were gutted, Head Start was cut back and all federal agencies were dramatically affected. It was a lot to live with; unemployment was at a high for those days. 

Ironically, it was another Republican who restored some sense to the situation — President George H. Bush. We tried so hard to convince those we served to vote and to participate, and they did initially. Organizing was ripe and people were marching, voicing their opinions, talking to their legislators. They could then. And lots happened because they could. 

Poverty and politics have been intricately involved from the beginning of this country. Property wasn’t allowed to vote, hence the slave nor was the wife allowed to participate. Neither could the poor, as you had to be a property owner to vote in the day. So, decisions were made from a narrow perspective of our world. 

The Founding Fathers envisioned a much larger picture. Although they were largely responsible for those decisions, the interpretations, amendments and posturing over the years has resulted in almost the same kind of electorate that voted during that time. 

People don’t vote without an interest and I am amazed at how many people don’t see the interest. I used to tell residents that a lack of voting was far worse than voting for a candidate that was one maybe they didn’t agree with. It was always a battle because folks felt totally disenfranchised from their government. 

They would be denied services, lose their unemployment, die from a lack of medical care and never figure out that it was directly connected to who they did or did not vote for, and that was across the board. The poor we served weren’t the only ones who felt that way; middle-income people, women, students ... it was amazing. 

And it has only gotten worse. Our elected officials are now voted on by a minority of Americans because the vast majority just doesn’t participate. How can anything change? 

The politics aren’t just national; it is regional, statewide, and very, very local. On a national level, we just witnessed the largest debacle we will ever witness in our lifetime and yet I’ll bet most of us haven’t called our legislators. Do you have a teacher in your family? How about a soldier? An air traffic controller or maybe a national parks employee? All will be affected by last week’s decision. 

On the state level, things didn’t fare as badly if you were a business or male. If you were a female, you were legislated all over the place. That I know will bring a ton of response, but our government should be about the government; our bodies are our business. 

Locally, politics have been almost as bad as on a federal level. The school board races were hotly contested and not without a lack of civility. The same thing happened in the Jeffersonville mayor’s race; it was vicious, mean and not good for this community as lines were drawn, feelings hurt and with everybody wondering what was going to happen. 

The folks at the shelter just shook their head and said, “We don’t want to be part of that mess.” A lot of people said that along with them. Since the election the divide has only worsened, both locally and nationally. It is not healthy for our country or our community. 

The poor have always been easy prey. They are every politician’s dream — not in my backyard, taxes, immigration and medical care divided everyone. The money spent on war wasn’t discussed much. Neither was the true impact of the “fiscal cliff” or the sequestration. 

Keeping us divided on issues that constitute barely 4 percent of the budget is much easier than making the tough decisions. Keeping people mad at each other or the poor keeps us from dealing with real issues like corporate welfare (large corporations, not small business), taxes uncollected from those who have more than they could spend in several lifetimes. 

It has taken four decades for us to get to this point; it isn’t going to be over tomorrow. Our children will know the words recession and depression, and we allowed that to happen. 

It is our responsibility to hold those we elect responsible, it is also our responsibility to engage all Americans to vote and to participate, if this country is ever to be great again, it must first begin to care for its own. Charity begins at home.

 

— Barbara Anderson is executive director of Haven House Services Inc.