Fighting for 'Poor People,' 40 Years Later

Forty years ago today, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., announced final plans for a march on Washington for his Poor People's Campaign. One of his most ambitious political goals, it was aimed at eliminating poverty, regardless of race. Author David Shipler revisits King's vision.

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Just ahead, a look at the Mafia through the eyes of newsman Jimmy Breslin. We'll talk about his new book, "The Good Rat," and we will have some news about an attention-getting new memoir about gang life. Plus, our weekly visit with the Mocha Moms. That's all coming up.

But first, we want to talk about poverty in America. Next month we will acknowledge the day the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed 40 years ago. He's remembered primarily as a crusader for equal rights for African-Americans. But one of his last major political goals was to improve conditions for the poor, regardless of race. To that end, 40 years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King announced plans for a march on Washington for his poor people's campaign. Here is Dr. King discussing his idea in March of 1968.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

MARTIN LUTHER KING: This is America's opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have nots. There's nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.

MARTIN: Dr. King would not live to see that march take place. And while many argue that much of that anti-poverty agenda remains unfulfilled, others say that severe poverty is all but gone in the U.S. and that which remains is due more to personal behavior than to society's indifference. So we wanted to ask, what do we know about poverty now? Who speaks on behalf of the poor? Joining us by phone to talk about all of this is David Shipler. He is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author of the "The Working Poor: Invisible In America and a Country of Strangers, Black and White in America". Thank you so much for speaking with us.

DAVID SHIPLER: Very nice to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: When we say poverty in America today, what does that mean, and how has that changed since 1968?

SHIPLER: Well, it is probably true that people who are poor in America are - have better living standards than they did 40 years ago. But poverty is relative, you know. A farmer in Vietnam who has a few acres of rice paddy and plows with a water buffalo is not poor in Vietnam. But a Mexican farm worker who gets paid by the bucket of cucumbers he picks in eastern North Carolina and lives crammed with five other men in a barrack, you know, is poor in America. And I think that it's very difficult to define poverty. But the federal government defines it purely in terms of income.

A family of four last year earning $20,459, or something in that range, was poor. If you'd earned a dollar more, you were not. But that's a very artificial and rather arbitrary line, and most people I spent time with who were working and poor understood that to get out of poverty was more complicated than crossing a line.

MARTIN: Has the definition of poverty changed since 1968?

SHIPLER: It has not really. The formula was devised in the '60s based on family spending in the '50s when the average family spent about a third of its income on food. Families now spend about a sixth or less of their income on food. The cost of housing has really risen precipitously in most parts of the country. So the formula of taking food costs for a family and multiplying by three puts the poverty line artificially low.

MARTIN: So food is - costs less than it used to but housing costs much more than it used to.

SHIPLER: Yes, and in fact there's a relationship. Housing becomes a really key link in the chain reaction of problems and can actually lead to malnutrition. Working families that have no housing subsidies can pay 50 to 70% of their income for housing if they're on the market in many parts of the country. And that's a check you have to write every month. There's no choice. You know, you've got to write that check. You got to pay the car payment to get to work. You got to pay the electric bill. Those are not optional. The part of the budget that can be squeezed is for food. And in many cases families, children, little kids, toddlers, suffer from malnutrition because they are cutting back on food.

I mean, in fact there was a study done several years ago of 12,000 low income families that found a high correlation between families without housing subsidies and with underweight children. Now, this is a really serious problem, because of course malnutrition in the first two or three years of life when the brain is developing rapidly can lead to life long cognitive deprivation, which means learning problems, poor functioning in school and so forth. So it's - the problems of poverty are related to one another in a very intricate way, which means that the solutions also have to be related in an intricate way.

MARTIN: I take your point that poverty is relative and that the way we measure it can be, can sort of shape the conversation. But The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, argues that in fact we exaggerate the extent of poverty rather than minimize it. For example, they say that, for example, the average poor person in the U.S. has more living space than the average person living in Europe and that the average poor person generally does have enough food and also many amenities, such as cable television, air conditioning, a car, sometimes more than one car. What do you say to that?

SHIPLER: Well, there are a few things to say. First of all, I think poverty is not only income. It is also a state of mind and a sense of powerlessness. It's a relationship between the person who is performing important services to create the affluence of the society and the society itself. So for example, I visit quite a few schools in poor neighborhoods that have no - don't have enough textbooks for each kid in school. A teacher in L.A. told me, you know, if you don't have a textbook for every child, you don't have a textbook for any child. So teachers end up having to spend their own money Xeroxing chapters.

When I told this to a friend of mine in Birmingham, Alabama, who lives in a very wealthy suburb, he was amazed because he said, you know, my kids have two textbooks for each class so they don't have to carry them back and forth between home and school. Disparities have risen enormously, so that the Federal Reserve a few years ago found that the wealthiest 10 percent of American households had a net worth on average of $3.1 million, whereas the bottom quarter of families had a net worth of minus $1400. And so you have a quarter of the households owing more than they own.

Now, again, defining poverty is a very difficult thing. I think some of the features of poverty - that is, the inability to get all the, you know, participate fully in American life - spill over into the middle class now. I mean they really are, some of the pinches are being felt, you know, on up into the income levels of 40, 50,000 a year.

MARTIN: But what about - there seems to be sort of a major - before actually, before we do that, I need to say that if you're just joining us, we're talking about the politics of poverty with author and journalist David Shipler. There seems to be a sort of a philosophical divide that has hardened in recent years, and one is that there's - you have structural issues that perpetuate poverty. But the other point of view is that personal behavior, choices perpetuate poverty.

SHIPLER: Yes, you're right. This is the stalemate of our so-called political discussion about poverty. What I found was much more complex. I could hardly locate a person in poverty who didn't combine both of these factors; that is the suffering from the society's failures, the failure of public education, government services, the private market economy, the job market, and who had not somehow inherited a legacy of being poorly parented, getting, you know, getting pregnant out of wedlock, dropping out of school, doing drugs and all of the so-called personal choices that the conservatives talk about.

I think actually both liberals and conservatives are right, you know, simultaneously. You know, liberals have in their pockets certain pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, the society's failures. And conservatives have in their pockets other pieces of the puzzle, personal and family issues. And if the two were to sit down at the same table, I know this is a novel idea in a highly polarized, political society, but if they were to sit down at the table and put all the pieces that they have in their pockets out there and assemble them, they'd have a full picture of poverty.

MARTIN: What are some of those strategies that based on your reporting might effectively fight poverty?

SHIPLER: Well, for example, I'll give you one example of a kid I got to know in New Hampshire. He's a very bright kid and he came from a family that was quite poor. His mother had died of cancer. His father hadn't finished high school. And when he was thinking about going to college, his father knew nothing at all about how you applied for college. They lived in a very poor town where the school system was bad. And he did manage to apply and he got into the University of Hartford and he wanted to be an architect. But he needed financial aid, and when the financial aid forms were sent, his father was supposed to fill them out, didn't really know how to do it. He was an alcoholic and he sort of had periods when he drank, not, you know, sometimes he wasn't drinking. But he happened to be drinking when these forms arrived and they never got filled out.

And this kid never was able to go to college and ended up enlisting in the Air Force, which is fine. But a door was closed in his face. Now, here you had a combination of family failure and school failure. Because if a good guidance counselor, if he'd been in a school system where they had enough guidance counselors to pay attention and follow the seniors as they applied to college, a good guidance counselor would have caught this problem, sat down with the father, gotten the information, helped him fill out the forms, and the kid would have been able to go to college.

So there you have, I think, a perfect case of the personal family in this case and the societal failures working together to close off life opportunities for one particular young man.

MARTIN: We only have about a minute left, Mr. Shipler, but I did want to say, ask you whether you felt that there is any sense that poverty is back on our agenda again. We talked a lot about it during the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, when many social conditions were revealed to people who heretofore had not seen them. Do you see any sign of that, that we care about poverty again?

SHIPLER: I think we - well, we do care. I speak all over the country and I ask people who come to these lectures - and there are quite a variety of people from business, law, you know, college, academics - how many of you would pay more taxes to help address the problems of poverty, and almost all the hands go up. It's amazing. Then I say how many of you who have raised your hands have told this to elected representatives, and hardly any hands go up.

So the political candidates have to realize that there is in fact a deep concern, and the concern, by the way, I think crosses ideological lines. I mean there are many conservatives who are also concerned. They have different answers and different solutions, but they don't like what they see. John Edwards, of course, put poverty on the agenda and both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have picked up on it. And they do talk about it.

MARTIN: Okay. We're going to have to leave it there.

SHIPLER: Okay. Well, I hope we can talk more about it.

MARTIN: I do too. David Shipler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and the author of "The Working Poor: Invisible in America," and he joined us on the phone from his home in Maryland. Thank you so much.

SHIPLER: Thank you.

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