The term “anti-poverty” was once a powerful concept in American policy, but you rarely hear politicians or the media use it anymore. How we view and treat the poor has undergone a transformation since the Clinton era. We’ll consider the changes that have taken place, and see where the anti-poverty movement is headed.


  • Deepak Bhargava Executive Director, Center for Community Change
  • Linda Stout Director, Spirit in Action; and author of 'Collective Visioning: How Groups Can Work Together for a Just and Sustainable Future' (BK Currents (Paperback))
  • Olivia Golden Senior Fellow, The Urban Institute; and author of "Reforming Child Welfare" (Urban Institute Press); former Director DC Child and Family Services Agency (2001-2004); Assistant Secretary for Children & Families at US Department of Health and Human Services(1997-2001)


  • 12:06:46

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5, at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Before the war on terror and the war on drugs, there was a war on poverty. In the '60s, mainstream America was shocked to learn that there were pockets of the country where people still used outhouses, lacked running water and had no reliable heat.

  • 12:07:20

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThey rallied behind policies that aimed to remedy that situation. Now, the idea of fighting poverty, at least on a national level, has all but faded from our collective radar. So what has become of our nation's efforts to feed, clothe, employ and otherwise help poor people? Is there anyone left to champion the cause? Joining us in studio to have this conversation is Olivia Golden.

  • 12:07:46

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIShe is a senior fellow at The Urban Institute, where she specializes in child and family programs at the federal, state and local levels. Olivia Golden has a special interest in the way services are delivered on the frontlines. Olivia Golden, good to see you again.

  • 12:08:01

    MS. OLIVIA GOLDENGreat to be here.

  • 12:08:03

    NNAMDIDeepak Bhargava is the executive director of the Center for Community Change. That's a national nonprofit that works to develop the power and capacity of low-income people, especially people of color, to change the policies and institutions that affect their lives. Deepak Bhargava, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:22

    MR. DEEPAK BHARGAVAGreat to be here, Kojo.

  • 12:08:23

    NNAMDIAlso joining us from the studios of New England Public Radio in Amherst is Linda Stout, director of Spirit in Action and author of "Collective Visioning." She may be best known for starting the award-winning Piedmont Peace Project back in 1984. Linda Stout, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:43

    MS. LINDA STOUTThank you. I'm happy to be here, and hi, Deepak.

  • 12:08:47

    NNAMDIDeepak, apparently you know Linda.

  • 12:08:49

    BHARGAVAWe do indeed. I'm a huge fan.

  • 12:08:50

    NNAMDIIt's a conversation you, too, can join by calling us at 800-433-8850, going to our website,, joining the conversation there, sending us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to How do you feel the fight on poverty in the United States has or has not evolved? 800-433-8850. For some, it might mean going to bed hungry more often than not or being unable to afford a winter coat for their kids.

  • 12:09:22

    NNAMDIThere is an official poverty measure, but debates over whether or not it gives us an accurate picture of the problem are ongoing. What does poverty look like to you, starting with you, Deepak Bhargava?

  • 12:09:35

    BHARGAVAWell, Kojo, the official poverty line is about $21, $22,000 for a family of four. I think the poverty line is very out-of-date, and a more realistic assessment of what it takes for people to make ends meet, to meet their basic needs is more like double that, so around 200 percent of the poverty line. And I also think it's important to remember that there are non-monetary aspects here.

  • 12:10:03

    BHARGAVASo your ability to save for emergencies, live in a community where there are good schools, have parks, recreation, be free of violence, but, at the basic kind of financial level, I think we're talking about, a third of Americans, from my point of view, who are struggling to make ends meet.

  • 12:10:21

    NNAMDIOlivia Golden?

  • 12:10:23

    GOLDENWell, my career is, as you just highlighted, has really focused on parents and kids. So when I think about poverty, I think about the effects on children. And, as we just heard, the official -- at the official poverty line about $22,000 a year for a family of four, about one in five children, 21 percent in 2009 or 15 million kids, live in families at that level. And about twice as many, four in 10, kids live in families at the low-income threshold that Deepak talked about.

  • 12:10:53

    GOLDENAnd those are kids -- if you think about what those families experience, much higher levels of health problems for parents and for kids, very difficult and unstable housing situations often, and parents struggling to balance work hours that can be totally out of their control, erratic and unstable with caring for their children. So those income levels go with a lot of disadvantages for raising kids.

  • 12:11:19

    NNAMDILinda Stout, you grew up poor. And growing up poor has lasting effects, even if you do go on to become a part of the middle class. How has the experience of growing up in poverty shaped your life?

  • 12:11:32

    STOUTWell, I think, several ways. One, I was denied a college education. I got a full scholarship and still couldn't get quite enough money for housing. And I see a lot of the same things happening. I grew up with no running water and no bathroom my whole life. But I've worked in communities where that still exists today.

  • 12:11:59

    STOUTAnd I think a lot of America doesn't know that. And they also don't recognize, even in their own cities, that there's schools in the low-income communities that don't have textbooks, enough for the children or not enough desks or not enough decent -- even bathrooms, like toilet paper and soap. And for my niece and nephews, I see it still being an incredible struggle, where they go to low-income schools where you have to pay to even be allowed to walk across the stage at graduation, that kind of thing.

  • 12:12:41

    NNAMDIIt also has a psychological effect. It's something that, even though you have been lecturing at Harvard and in other places, you say that it took a visit to Nicaragua for you to, in effect, come out of the closet as a poor person. What did that visit to Nicaragua do for you?

  • 12:13:00

    STOUTWell, I saw a lot of people living in extreme poverty, much in the way that I had grown up and growing up the daughter of a farm worker and being proud of who they were and understanding that it wasn't their fault. It was part of the system. And, for me, I had thought it was my fault, so I was trying to hide the fact that I grew up poor and hide the fact that I didn't have a college education.

  • 12:13:31

    STOUTAnd people in Nicaragua kept saying your work needs to be back home changing things in the U.S. That's much harder than coming here and working. And so when I came home, I declared that I was going to come out of the closet as a poor person. And I still do to this day. And every time I go to a college to speak, I have people come up to me and say, oh, I've been trying to hide this part of myself because this is a society that makes you feel ashamed if you're poor.

  • 12:14:04

    NNAMDIWe're talking about poverty and how we address it today. Linda Stout is director of Spirit in Action and author of "Collective Visioning: How Groups Can Work Together for a Just and Sustainable Future." She joins us from studios in Amherst. Deepak Bhargava joins us in our Washington studio. He's the executive director of the Center for Community Change.

  • 12:14:23

    NNAMDIAlong with him is Olivia Golden, senior fellow at The Urban Institute, where she specializes in child and family programs at the federal, state and local levels. We're inviting your phone calls at 800-433-8850. Before I go to the phone, Deepak, what images, what impacts of poverty that you've seen had the greatest impact on you and may have motivated you to work in this field?

  • 12:14:46

    BHARGAVAYeah, I grew up in the Bronx in New York City. And I saw friends and people who I was very close to go without meals. I think we think in the richest country in America, that's not possible. But -- and we see it now, dramatically increasing numbers of people who are so-called food insecure, which basically means they don't have enough money to put enough food on the table and miss meals.

  • 12:15:13

    BHARGAVAI saw people with incredible talent who got no support, went to schools that did not support and nurture that talent and found themselves caught up in the criminal justice system. And that's an incredible loss, not just for them, but for the whole society. So the effects of poverty are obviously devastating for people who are poor. But, really, it is an immense drain and loss to our entire country.

  • 12:15:40

    NNAMDIOlivia Golden, it's my understanding that, right out of college, your first job was in a welfare department. What state?

  • 12:15:47


  • 12:15:48

    NNAMDIHow did that affect you?

  • 12:15:48

    GOLDENI grew up just where Linda is right now, in Amherst. Well, I think that, for me, the personal side of being involved with poverty was that my parents were both immigrants. And they both succeeded here, but other family members didn't. And I had the same sense you just heard, that it was just such a huge waste when someone brilliant and talented couldn't succeed because of the way things worked here.

  • 12:16:09

    GOLDENAnd, I think, the story I would tell -- actually, from another job I had right after the welfare department and the Boston Housing Authority was that when I would meet people trying to struggle with extraordinarily difficult conditions, I tended to think about how brave they were and how persistent and how we'd failed them publicly.

  • 12:16:29

    GOLDENAnd the story that I always think about is a woman in a very devastated housing project in the city of Boston. You walked in from a urine-smelling and terrible hallway into her apartment. And she had everything she owned dusted to complete perfection. And I have to say my reaction to that was, she's doing everything we could ask her to do in this situation. But it's we, in thinking about the policy and collective arrangements, that have failed her and are losing her potential.

  • 12:17:00

    NNAMDILinda Stout, President Johnson declared a war on poverty over 50 years ago. From where you sit, are we, as a society, still fighting that war? And then after you, I've got a caller who'd like to address that. But first you, Linda.

  • 12:17:13

    STOUTWe are still addressing that war and need to be doing a lot more toward it. I think our government is failed us in this situation, and that my work is to bring poor people and allies together so that we can continue to work together to change the conditions that affect us as poor people.

  • 12:17:37

    NNAMDINow, on to the telephone. Here is Erik in Arlington, Va. Erik, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:17:43

    ERIKHi. I think economist Thomas Sowell put it well when he said the war on poverty was able to accomplish what slavery never could. And he points out that the war on poverty creates more poverty. And it's not that we need to have a war on poverty, but rather we need to have what creates wealth. So that is done through individual rights, freedom and a capitalist society. That's what creates wealth.

  • 12:18:11

    ERIKThat's what allows the ambitious poor to create wealth for themselves. And it's things like socialism and redistribution of wealth that hurts the ambitious poor more than anything else.

  • 12:18:25

    NNAMDIWhen you say the ambitious poor, you seem to be suggesting that the poor are divided into two different categories, the ambitious poor and the non-ambitious poor.

  • 12:18:36

    ERIKWell, in any -- at any level of wealth, there's varying degrees of ambition. But, certainly, the more ambitious you are, the more you would suffer under such a system. And being ambitious is what allows you to create that wealth. And it's freedom that people need to be able to do that. So creating walls that prevent people from starting businesses and giving people welfare rather than allowing them to have jobs or use jobs to support themselves, these are the things that keep people poor, keep people in poverty generation after generation, the things that take out, destroy families.

  • 12:19:13

    ERIKI mean, Thomas Sowell talked about this very well, that it creates incentives for single mothers to be single mothers because they get more benefits and things like this.

  • 12:19:22

    NNAMDIAllow me to have Olivia Golden to respond. Thomas Sowell has been a guest on this show in the past. He's a well-known conservative intellectual as I recall. He hung up the phone on me. But go ahead, Olivia Golden.

  • 12:19:33

    GOLDENWell, the caller's perspective that public programs haven't worked, I think it's important to counter that with some of the important facts about where public programs have given people what they need to succeed. And I'll mention three examples quickly. There's lots more. One is that the welfare reform of the 1990s, when I was part of the Clinton administration, it had weaknesses, which we can talk about, too.

  • 12:19:54


  • 12:19:55

    GOLDENBut it did make it possible to focus on work for low-income mothers and parents to increase work and incomes in that period, and that was partly because of welfare. It was partly -- and I think this was really important -- because of big federal help with things that low-income working people need, like health coverage and childcare and nutrition. A low-wage job isn't enough in itself.

  • 12:20:17

    GOLDENAnd it was partly because of a booming economy. So that was one example. Our public health coverage, Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program, over the last decade, when ordinary working people and poor people have not been able to get coverage for their kids through their employers, we've countered that as a nation by expanding the number of children who get help from the government, to buy insurance for their kids, which is something you just can't do on your own.

  • 12:20:46

    GOLDENAnd as a result, children are more likely to be insured than they used to be. And then I would also point to early education, Head Start -- Early Head Start programs. So I think the important successes, even though they don't go all the way, you have to know about them in order to not give up on public programs.

  • 12:21:06

    NNAMDIDeepak Bhargava, your thoughts on the War on Poverty?

  • 12:21:09

    BHARGAVAWell, I think it's important to say in response to the caller that other wealthy, industrialized countries make a very different choice. The levels of extreme poverty and hardship that we see here were a product of, in my view, very shortsighted and mean-spirited public policies. In the rest of the industrialized world, we have policies that ensure that, if you work, working standards are such that you can provide for your family.

  • 12:21:36

    BHARGAVAAnd for people who aren't working because, as is currently the case, there is massive and widespread unemployment with five job seekers for every job, that there is adequate income support for those people to sustain a basic livelihood. And so it's factually untrue to say that government policy causes poverty.

  • 12:21:56

    BHARGAVAIn fact, quite the contrary, those countries that have chosen a more generous path have come close to eliminating poverty for very vulnerable children, in particular, and have much lower levels of hardship than we do here in the United States.

  • 12:22:09

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation about how we address issues of poverty in the United States. If you'd like to call us, 800-433-8850 is the number. Do you think the current economy has made people more or less tuned in to the plight of the poor? You can also go to our website, Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:24:35

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about poverty and the poor in America. We're talking with Linda Stout. She is the director of Spirit in Action and author of the book, "Collective Visioning: How Groups Can Work Together for a Just and Sustainable Future." Linda Stout joins us from the studios of New England Public Radio in Amherst.

  • 12:24:53

    NNAMDIIn our Washington studio is Olivia Golden, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, where she specializes in child and family programs at the federal, state and local levels, and Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, which is a national nonprofit that works to develop the power and capacity of low-income people, especially people of color, to change policies and institutions that affect their lives.

  • 12:25:16

    NNAMDIDeepak, states across the nation have been struggling to balance their budgets. Some have been more proactive when it comes to protecting low-income families than others. But talk a little about what happened in Montana, for example.

  • 12:25:28

    BHARGAVASure. Well, it's a bright spot in what has been a very dark period. So in Montana, in response to very radical cuts to basic safety net, health, education programs for the most vulnerable people, a coalition, the Montana Organizing Project, other groups, worked together, mobilized 2,000 people to the state capital in Helena -- which doesn't sound like a lot to us Washingtonians, but is quite a lot in a place like Montana...

  • 12:25:56

    NNAMDIUnless the entire state has less than a million people in it, I mean, it's quite large.

  • 12:26:00

    BHARGAVAThat's right -- expressing their outrage with those proposals, and the governor response, veto those harsh budget cuts. So that's a rare case in which kind of a humane vision prevailed. Around the country, we have seen some fairly devastating cuts to basic programs that allow people to make ends meet. A couple of states have increased taxes on the wealthy rather than making those extreme cuts. But it is a very tough situation out there right now.

  • 12:26:28

    NNAMDIOlivia Golden, the perception that you are well-off for not doing so well might change the way you perceive poverty in the middle of a recession. Is it because we're in a recession that it might be harder to sell the notion of anti-poverty?

  • 12:26:44

    GOLDENWell, it's interesting. I actually think there are two different effects from the recession, and I think -- I actually see a slightly sunnier picture across the states. I'm now working with a group of nine states that's trying to figure out how to provide some of the work support benefits we talked about to low-income people.

  • 12:27:01

    GOLDENAnd some of them -- for some of them, this is a moment when they can get something done because state legislatures, who used to think the food stamp program is just for someone else, are now seeing that in their district, it really matters, say, a factory closed. So a recession can have the effect that people feel more empathy. They think it could -- maybe I could lose my job next. But I think the other thing that it can do is leave people to be very frightened and to believe that any public effort, any expenditure of tax money or of government money is going to undercut their ability to stay afloat.

  • 12:27:39

    GOLDENSo I think that those two effects, it's very hard to predict. If you look at U.S. history, we've -- it's very hard to tell which of those themes is going to win out in the end, I think, in a recession.

  • 12:27:52

    NNAMDILinda Stout, are you finding it more difficult in this recessionary period, in this difficult economy to talk to people about anti-poverty?

  • 12:28:00

    STOUTNot -- no, I don't. I actually feel like I work with a majority of people who feel it and understand it. On the other hand, as was mentioned, we -- as Olivia mentioned, this piece of being frightened and blaming someone, I have seen in my time of working in North Carolina was the Klan, and now it's the Tea Party.

  • 12:28:31

    STOUTAnd there's a lot of low-income, working class white people who get so freaked out and afraid that they join movements to separate. But they're often, I would say, miseducated, as opposed to uneducated, about those issues. And I see people working three and four jobs and not able to make it. And I responded to Eric's call with, what does it mean to be ambitious? My father worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week.

  • 12:29:07

    STOUTHow dare he say, you know, that people who are poor because they're not working hard enough. And I was reminded of the chair of our board member, this elderly, low-income woman who said, they want us to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, but some of us don't even have the boots, let alone the straps.

  • 12:29:29

    STOUTAnd I think that's what is happening, that we're seeing more and more cuts in the schools and health care and the things that really even allow people to move forward and get an education and, even if there were jobs, to be able to work. And what we're seeing is, often, people going into the criminal justice system, which cost us a lot more in tax dollars than giving people an education.

  • 12:30:01

    STOUTOr it's the majority of poor people, including my nephew, who go to war because that's a way to get an education. And he's spent the last two years in the hospital as a result.

  • 12:30:15

    NNAMDIYou know, Linda Stout mentioned the Ku Klux Klan and the fear among poor whites. Deepak, since President Obama's election, there's been some talk about America as a post-racial society, yet we still see a stark racial divide in terms of who is poor in America. Why is it still important to talk about race when we talk about poverty in the U.S.?

  • 12:30:36

    BHARGAVAYeah, I think this country is undergoing a, in a sense, a demographic revolution. We are on track to be a majority-minority country, majority of color country by 2015. Much of the country has already gone through that significant wave of immigration. That, together with this economic change that we are experiencing, has created, I think, an intense backlash that has a very strong racial undercurrent.

  • 12:31:03

    BHARGAVAAnd it's important to understand that our systems of poverty are highly, highly racialized. So the city of Detroit, overwhelmingly African-American city, the real unemployment rate in that city is well over 50 percent, particularly for men.

  • 12:31:20

    BHARGAVAThe way in which our systems of education, labor markets, criminal justice, et cetera, play together result in vastly disproportionate, bad outcomes for particularly African-American and Latinos in our society, so we have to recognize that specific responses are necessary in those areas of concentrated poverty to address the result of all of those factors.

  • 12:31:44

    NNAMDIAnd, Olivia Golden, the fact that we're becoming a majority-minority country is especially important when you look at children and poverty among children; is it not?

  • 12:31:53

    GOLDENExactly. Our children are becoming minority rapidly. For the very youngest children, that's already -- it's already a majority and for all kids, I think, at this point in about 10 states. And that has a lot of implications. For me, one implication is that we all have an enormous stake in the circumstances of African-American, Latino and Asian families, as well as white families, whoever we are, whatever are own race or ethnicity, because I'm -- just to admit this -- I'm in my mid-50s. I'm a baby boomer.

  • 12:32:24

    GOLDENAs I get older in the next 10, 20, 30 years, I have an enormous stake in today's children growing up, being able to take good jobs, being able to take care of me, being able to become scientists and doctors. And as that share of children who grow up in circumstances that we've traditionally done a lot less well at, responding to kids who are black or Hispanic, kids who are growing up in poverty, as that share grows, we're going to have to do way better than we've done in the past at making sure that those kids have opportunities.

  • 12:32:56

    GOLDENAnd it also has implications for the state topic we were talking about because the states where there are growing populations of kids are states like Texas, North Carolina, where Linda's from, the South, the Southwest. And while many of those states have made efforts, they don't typically have a strong tradition of public investment in kids. And so I think we all have a stake in getting this right going forward.

  • 12:33:20

    NNAMDIAnd since we're talking race, Linda, I didn't mention the race of any of our guests. But when you first got involved in community activism, civil rights pioneer Septima Clark sent you to an NAACP meeting. Had you ever even heard of that group before you went to a meeting?

  • 12:33:37

    STOUTI didn't know what the NAACP was. And Mrs. Clark sent me, and I had no idea who she was at the time because I wasn't taught civil rights history in school. And I came back and said, Mrs. Clark, they didn't like me. They didn't trust me. I was the only white person, and I was the youngest person. And she said, well, of course, they didn't. What did you expect? Now, next time you go. And next time you go.

  • 12:34:03

    STOUTAnd, finally, someone asked me why I was there. And when I said Septima Clark, who, of course, is often considered the grandmother of the civil rights movement, I had the floor. And that was my first experience of -- she was my mentor and teacher and -- at her elder age, and so I was very fortunate to have someone like that in my life to help me.

  • 12:34:33

    NNAMDIRace and poverty in America. We can now go to the telephones again. So we will go to Farzad (sp?) in Fairfax, Va. Farzad, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:34:44

    FARZADGood afternoon, Kojo. I love your show. Thanks for this program. Just would like to mention that the division between the poor and the rich is going back to late '20s (unintelligible)...

  • 12:34:58

    NNAMDI(word?) 1928. Go ahead.

  • 12:35:01

    FARZADYes. And it is dangerously, you know, it is really mind-boggling that the Republicans are -- keep pushing for, you know, the more divisions. The corporations are not -- large corporations are not paying anything on the tax side. And, still, they believe that the same policies that broke in this country is the remedy for this disastrous situation. And I am one of those people who are working more and more every day.

  • 12:35:35

    FARZADAnd I have really -- I'm struggling. I work. My wife works, and my son who is living with us also works. And we are (word?) us poor at this time. You know, we cannot make a decent living in this country, and it is shameful.

  • 12:35:54

    NNAMDIWell, Farzad, thank you for mentioning, since 1928, the income gap in the U.S. is now at its widest because, Deepak, he also mentioned being critical of Republicans not doing anything on the tax side. You say that in the states of, I guess, Illinois and Oregon, they've been able to do things on the tax side.

  • 12:36:14

    BHARGAVAYes. You know, the richest 400 individuals in the country now earn more, have more wealth than the bottom 150 million people in the society. So the argument that's being made is that, you know, we don't have enough. There's scarcity that we have to cut back these programs. In fact, there is vast concentrated wealth in this country on a scale that we haven't seen since the earlier part of the 20th century.

  • 12:36:41

    BHARGAVASome states, Illinois, Oregon, have passed surtaxes on millionaires to help avoid some of these draconian budget cuts to vital human services programs. If we decided that we wanted to close this gap to give everybody in the country opportunity to deal with the problems of the poor, the working class, the middle class, there is enough. It requires raising taxes on people who can afford it and on the corporate sector.

  • 12:37:09

    NNAMDIAs the divide between the haves and the have-nots grows wider, is it becoming easier for those who are not poor to avoid the issue? Olivia, you have been head of Child and Family Services here in the District of Columbia. And we have a big gulf in this city between rich and poor.

  • 12:37:25

    GOLDENWe do. And you've been generous enough to have me on to talk about my book on that topic on reforming child welfare, and one of the lessons...

  • 12:37:32

    NNAMDIWhat's the name of the book again?

  • 12:37:34

    GOLDENThe book is "Reforming Child Welfare" to...

  • 12:37:36

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 12:37:37

    GOLDENYou're welcome. Thank you. And one of the themes there that, I think, is true in the District and true nationally is that one of the reasons that people don't get distressed by the gulf as we'd think they would is that they're deeply cynical and pessimistic about public investment. And so, even if they think, well, maybe it shouldn't be this way, like Erik, they think that anything we could do to fix it might be worse.

  • 12:38:03

    GOLDENAnd so I think it's very important to provide information that counters that and that says public investments, public programs haven't been perfect, but they have important accomplishments. In my book, I talked about the District and child welfare. But on the topic we're talking about today, the District, for example, despite its big disparities, is one of the best jurisdictions in the country providing health insurance to a large share of its citizens.

  • 12:38:29

    GOLDENWe've made good choices in that way. But as you say, it makes it hard for a mayor in the District, that very deep poverty and very great wealth coexist, partly because of our housing structure. People in the middle look for somewhere to live in the suburbs. And that means that creating sort of a common sense of where we're going is a challenge. But I think if we can talk in a more fact-based and adult way about the -- what's been successful and what hasn't, that helps us move past some of that cynicism and pessimism.

  • 12:39:01

    NNAMDIWell, Linda Stout, I know you're concerned about the introduction of laws that seek to remove poor and especially homeless people from our view altogether.

  • 12:39:11

    STOUTOh, yeah, and in cities like San Francisco and other places where they actually outlaw carts or homeless people in certain areas of the city or -- I just saw in my own state, in Durham, where people who are begging for money, have to have permits and vests. I mean, it's crazy. But I also want to speak to the fact that I think poor people have to be involved in the solution, that organizing ourselves -- and I've seen, particularly young people, junior high school kids in New Orleans right after Katrina, who have made tremendous success and change in the laws, actually, of how the schools are ran.

  • 12:40:09

    STOUTAnd these are kids from the Ninth Ward who might have, at one point, had a high percentage expected to drop out and many -- and a high percentage expected to go to jail. And the ones who've been able to go through this program and really work toward their future have been able to make significant changes.

  • 12:40:30

    STOUTAnd so, while I think it's really important to have these security measures in place and to support people -- which is absolutely critical -- it's also really important for us to understand that we also should be part of the solution.

  • 12:40:53

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation in -- on poverty in America and how we address it today. If you have already called, stay on the line. I'll be taking a lot more of your calls when we come back. If the lines are busy, go to our website, Ask a question or make a comment there. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Or send email to

  • 12:41:14

    NNAMDIHow do you perceive your class status? How do you think it affects the way you view poverty? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:43:24

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about how we address issues of poverty in America with Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change. Olivia Golden is a senior fellow at The Urban Institute, and Linda Stout is director of Spirit in Action and author of "Collective Visioning." Olivia Golden, could you remember -- remind us of the name of your book again. It's called "Reforming...?

  • 12:43:45

    GOLDEN"Reforming Child Welfare."

  • 12:43:47

    NNAMDI"Reforming Child Welfare." I'd like to go directly to the telephones, where Jason Disterhoft awaits us. Jason, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:43:56

    MR. JASON DISTERHOFTHi, Kojo. Thank you for the show, and thank you to your guests for the vital work that they do. My name is Jason Disterhoft. I'm with Amnesty International USA. I work on our poverty and human rights campaign. And one aspect of the poverty issue that I haven't heard discussed so far is the rights angle to it. Poverty is a human rights issue. Human rights abuses cause poverty. Human rights abuses hit people living in poverty particularly hard.

  • 12:44:32

    MR. JASON DISTERHOFTThat -- and there's a fundamental right to a number of the issues that your guests have mentioned, whether it's freedom from violence, freedom from discrimination, right to participate in decisions that shape people's lives, access to housing, access to health care. And you see that play out in a number of ways across the country. So I wonder if your guests could just speak to the human rights aspect of poverty.

  • 12:45:09

    NNAMDIOkay. Allow me to have Deepak Bhargava respond.

  • 12:45:13

    BHARGAVAWell, I definitely agree with Jason about that. You know, the U.N. declaration on human rights does make the case, and the United States is a signatory that many of these things are, in fact, basic human rights that should be available to all people.

  • 12:45:30

    BHARGAVAI think the key here is that we have to build a social consensus in this country, that it is not in our long-term interest as a nation for anybody to have one-third of our nation ill-clothed, ill-housed, ill-fed, insecure, fearful, in desperate circumstances, and that it doesn't have to be this way, to Olivia's point that there are practical solutions that we can undertake that will make our society more decent and livable for everybody, and that there is enough, that we don't have this deficit scarcity mentality, that there's enough to solve these problems. So I agree with the caller. I think the task before us is to build that social consensus that we can and should do something about it.

  • 12:46:16

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. And good luck to you, Jason Disterhoft. We got this email from Gail. Linda Stout, I'd like you to respond to it. Gail writes, "How can we get the social and economic justice groups, especially national groups, to actively oppose out-of-control military spending as a strategy to save domestic human needs programs? War and bloated military spending will keep eating up our discretionary spending and deepening our debt as long as there's no effective pushback from the broader economic and social justice movements." Linda Stout?

  • 12:46:49

    STOUTWell, this is -- basically, what I wrote my book about is that, I think, we have to come together and work together to become more than the sum of our parts. There are a lot of us working on different issues and working very hard, really wonderful work that is happening. But we have to bring in more diverse groups people together. We have to build stronger networks and work together on our vision for what we want to see changed in this country. I think that is something we don't grow up knowing how to do necessarily.

  • 12:47:39

    STOUTWe don't know how to work across our differences and our different ethnicities or in race and class. And so we have to learn how to do that, and we have to learn how we can put aside our egos and our differences. And it's not that we change strategies. I want people out there still working on services for poor people. And I may be working on organizing poor people and other people are working on alternatives. But we have to be doing it in conjunction with each other, so we're moving together.

  • 12:48:19

    NNAMDIDeepak Bhargava, you talk about the difference between organizing and mobilizing. How would you characterize or explain that difference?

  • 12:48:26

    BHARGAVAYeah, to me, organizing is fundamentally about developing the capacity and supporting people's capacity to participate in our democracy. So not just showing up at a rally and dragging your neighbor out -- although that can be very important. That's mobilizing -- but really developing people's capacity to participate in the public sphere. And what we suffer from in this country is not enough democratic participation. So organizing is a big part of the solution.

  • 12:48:52

    BHARGAVAI did want to say, in response to the caller, this weekend all over the country, there were going to be 1,500 house meetings in a new movement to try to rebuild the American dream, where thousands of people will be coming together in church basements, in homes around the country, to talk about how did we get in this mess, how do we solve it and generating solutions themselves as part of a new contract for the American dream.

  • 12:49:16

    BHARGAVASo I want to encourage the caller and others to participate in that effort. It's the kind of bottom-up movement that can generate the big changes that we all know we need in this country.

  • 12:49:26

    NNAMDIAnd even though, Olivia, people may argue that what we are talking about is a national movement, there has been a shift to state administrations in dealing with this issue. And so there needs to be, as, I guess, Deepak just pointed out, a dialogue going on in each state about this.

  • 12:49:44

    GOLDENWell, the states do play a central role in low-income delivering programs and making policy choices about low-income families. And they play a huge role in children's well-being. One of the things at Urban Institute -- some of my colleagues look at the federal budget all the time. And one of the big headlines is that, while the federal government provides much of the investment that's contributed to our success in reducing poverty among the elderly, states provide two-thirds of the dollars for programs for children, mostly education.

  • 12:50:15

    GOLDENAnd so, absolutely, states are crucial because of the volume of spending. They've been incredibly fragile state budgets during this recession. And I think one of the lessons we may need to take forward is that if we want investment in our children all over the country, it's possible. We'll have to renegotiate some of those funding arrangements. And states also provide the staffing and the service delivery in many cases, even for programs that have federal money in them, like food stamps or Medicaid.

  • 12:50:45

    GOLDENState offices, state workers, state computer systems often deliver those services, and so layoffs at the state level hit families really hard. I guess the one point I want to add to the previous conversation, in terms of state debates as well as the federal one, is that almost all of our callers today have agreed with us and have wanted to know why other people can be so foolish as not to agree that poverty is important, except for our first caller.

  • 12:51:11

    GOLDENAnd I just want to note that in what's now several decades of working on issues of low-income children and families, I think it is important to spend some time thinking about what Americans believe who aren't comfortable, and we've talked about some of that. We've talked about fear.

  • 12:51:25


  • 12:51:25

    GOLDENWe've talked about a disbelief in government programs. The other thing I would highlight about children is that there's something we value about Americans, which is sort of a belief in individualism, a belief that government interference in the family is a bad thing. The flip side of that can be, I think, a belief that it should be totally on parents to provide for their children.

  • 12:51:46

    GOLDENAnd so, as a result, we have a situation in the U.S. where of the birth of the baby, which ought to be a joyous occasion, it's incredibly important for the baby and the parents, is often a triggering event for poverty because if that family was just getting by on, you know, work from everybody and all of a sudden that's gone, that can be a huge destabilizing factor. So we need to respect how people are thinking about it while providing ways to talk about what you could do in a practical way that could make it possible.

  • 12:52:18

    NNAMDIGlad you brought that up because that's what Dana in Baltimore, apparently, wants to talk about. Dana, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:52:25

    DANAHey. Thanks a lot, Kojo. Hello and regards to your panel. So I'm a regular contributor to National Public Radio, and I listen to your show a lot. Lately, I've read a book that suggests that the underlying cause of poverty, or an underlying cause of poverty, or a factor that makes it much more likely that a child will go on to be impoverished is out-of-marriage childbirth and the lack of the family unit, two parents. And I wonder what the callers have to say about that.

  • 12:53:00

    DANABut the writer made the case that our politics and our policies do not discourage out-of-wedlock childbirth, and also makes the case that educating on birth control has not been effective in decreasing the number of out-of-wedlock children. And so I wonder...

  • 12:53:24

    NNAMDIWell, Olivia Golden, if the statistics indicate that female-headed households in the United States are among the most poor in the United States, our caller suggests or wants to know, what can we do about that? And, I guess, as I can add to that question, that's not the children's fault, though, is it?

  • 12:53:42

    GOLDENRight. I mean, I would make several comments. This is obviously an issue that's often on people's minds. The first is that while that's true for many groups of kids, Latino kids are actually less likely to be growing up in single-parent families, but more likely to be poor than white kids. So there are a bunch of factors that -- and low wages are a very big factor, along with how many parents there are that are working, along with limited or unstable work, along with health circumstances.

  • 12:54:11

    GOLDENSo I think lots of factors go into poverty. I do think that this question of how can we address families' ability to have kids when both parents are ready is a really important issue. I actually think that it's one of the ones that is hard for government to address in simple ways. It's hard to say to a young man and young woman...

  • 12:54:31

    NNAMDIStop that.

  • 12:54:32

    GOLDEN...stop that. And it's also particularly hard when the circumstances of young men are really bad. And so it may feel like the last chance to have a child together and to raise that child. But I think there are things to be done about supporting that family, about encouraging strong relationships, about supporting the opportunities for young men, as well as young women.

  • 12:54:53

    GOLDENBut I think you have to address -- as you just said, Kojo -- once that baby is there, it is incredibly important to ensure that that baby can grow up successful. And that, I think, is a huge agenda in itself.

  • 12:55:07

    NNAMDIDana, thank you for your call. Here's Lauren in Arlington, Va. Lauren, your turn.

  • 12:55:12

    LAURENHi, Kojo. Thanks for the show. You know, unlike your panel today, I am -- I'm not writing a book. I'm not at the Urban Institute, researching policies or, you know, maintaining a campaign for human rights. I'm a master's-level social worker and have been working in the area for 10-plus years. And my experience is completely different than what your callers and panelists have been discussing.

  • 12:55:39

    NNAMDIWell, you should know that one of our panelists, Olivia Golden, is a master's social worker herself, or was at one point.

  • 12:55:47

    GOLDENWell, my degree is in public policy, but I ran the District's child welfare agency and was very deeply engaged in the social work that went on there.

  • 12:55:55

    NNAMDIBut go ahead, Lauren.

  • 12:55:57

    LAURENSure thing. I am on the frontlines. You know, I'm the person sitting there side by side, helping my clients, you know, do Craigslist searches, find the daycare to, you know, get their child in daycare so they can get a job, you know, put out the application for the low-income housing units.

  • 12:56:17

    NNAMDIAnd, therefore, I'm interested in what your observation is on this topic because we're running out of time very quickly.

  • 12:56:22

    LAURENSure. Sure. My observations are that if there is a need for a poverty-stricken person in this community, there is a program to meet that need. And, unfortunately, my perspective, my experience is that it is usually the person not fulfilling that need, not going -- not taking responsibility and, you know, meeting the credentials to meet -- to get into that program. It's not that they don't have the boots or the stats because, in this area, there's programs that give those out, you know, dime a dozen.

  • 12:56:58

    LAURENAnd it's more about personal responsibility. There was actually that first caller that -- I think he was saying the ambitious poor. So, you know, that's just my experience. And I obviously got into this field because I believe in helping people...

  • 12:57:14

    NNAMDII know. We're running out of time very quickly, so I'd like to have Deepak Bhargava respond. I hear a lot of social workers say that.

  • 12:57:20

    BHARGAVASo there's experience, there's opinion, and then there's facts. There are millions of people on waiting lists for affordable housing all over the country. That's a fact. There are millions of people who want and need a child care subsidy or on a list waiting for that and can't get it. There are five -- and I think this is important to repeat -- there are five jobseekers for every available job in the country.

  • 12:57:43

    BHARGAVASo it may well be the case, and I think we should all admit that, among all social classes, there are people who do not take responsibility for themselves. There are just as many irresponsible rich people as there are responsible poor people. No denying that. But there is also a huge unmet need.

  • 12:57:59

    NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Deepak Bhargava is the executive director of the Center for Community Change. Deepak, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:58:05

    BHARGAVAThank you, Kojo.

  • 12:58:06

    NNAMDIOlivia Golden is a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, where she specializes in child and family programs at the federal, state and local levels. Olivia, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:58:14

    GOLDENGreat to be here.

  • 12:58:15

    NNAMDIAnd Linda Stout is director of Spirit in Action and author of "Collective Visioning." Linda Stout, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:58:22

    STOUTThank you so much.

  • 12:58:24

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

Related Links

Topics + Tags

Most Recent Shows