Chapter 11 – Public Writings: Poverty & Social Welfare

Racism, Poverty, & Social Welfare

The Don’t Shoot (now called Just Action) group originally came together around events that took place in Ferguson, MO. A group of non-Luther connected community residents met with Luther representatives to see about working together to bring Colin Gordon to campus to speak about his work showing the history of how towns like Ferguson physically came to be. That effort to bring Colin Gordon to campus was put with other ongoing events on campus talking about race and equality. Gordon’s presentation, his book’s discussion, and his meeting with students and Decorah residents, were set up to keynote that series of campus events.

Colin Gordon’s book, “Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the American City”, was a look under the actual event of Michael Brown’s shooting at a more fundamental level of conditions that led to the shooting. That “look” at fundamentals that cause many of our societal problems today is what I am proposing that the “new Don’t Shoot” group undertakes in the future.

When talking about many of the ills that plague people around the world, and that give rise to violence and other unsafe conditions for people, we find poverty, lack of jobs, education, health issues, and food scarcity. The same can be said for racism here in the US. It is not race in particular that leads to shootings like Michael Brown’s, but poverty that creates people who have no future in the society and culture within which they live. Looking at those “fundamental” issues around poverty will allow us to understand what it is that society needs to do for all of its members, so that those issues can be addressed for all of us.

The speakers listed in this draft version of a new “don’t shoot” effort will allow us to look at those fundamentals, but will do so through the lense of particulars. We would still be talking about racism, and other “other” problems, but that particular discussion would lead to those fundamental things that all people in society need to live a life of dignity.

This draft outline of a “new” “Don’t Shoot” (“An exploration of human dignity”) agenda attempts to:

  1. broaden the approach: as Victor Rios’ book title shows us immediately, this is not about one race, but about anyone, whites included, who exist in poverty; and their search for dignity just because they are human beings.
  1. be more inclusive: last years events drew small numbers of students, faculty, and Decorah residents. It was mainly a few (less than 100 people at most events) minority, LBGT, religious, and liberal minded people. This means that even accidental introductions to these themes didn’t happen for the vast majority of the student body, faculty, and community members. The events were put forth in a manner that let the majority of the white population say that didn’t have anything to do with shooting black people, when in fact, the majority population intended, or ignorantly allowed the fundamental conditions that led to the shooting to come about. Becoming aware of your “ignorance of ownership” should be a major tenant of this multi-year effort at exploring human dignity.
  1. use particulars to get at general issues: each speaker brings a different lense through which to gain an understanding of what fundamental issues give rise to that particular perspective and experience.
  1. ground rights (pursuit of happiness) in the Declaration and Constitution: these fundamental issues were understood by Jefferson when he added the third right, the right to “pursue” happiness. The Declaration, by guaranteeing the “pursuit” of happiness, encumbered itself (self-interest really since we are the government) to create the conditions that allowed all members of society to become fully participating members of their society to their level of ability and desire. That meant guaranteeing many of those things that we find that are missing today that lead to racism and other ills affecting the poor and disaffected members of our society today. That guarantee of the pursuit of “happiness” includes the guarantee of the basic necessities that allow that pursuit to happen – life, liberty, food security, health, shelter, education, good jobs with at least a living wage, access to culture and how our government operates, time to develop yourself.
  1. explore human dignity: that is an exploration of human beings, who we are as a species, how we fit into our planets environment, and our moral and ethical understanding of our place in this world. Pope Francis has called for: to paraphrase – putting aside your spiritual and religious strictures and structures, and just deal with people as humans. A tall order for many people who have never encountered this perspective before, but one with riches on the other side.
  1. how all the particulars meld into the overall theme: there should be a theme that is communicated to each of the invited speakers – that of an exploration of human dignity. The speakers would understand how we would like them to explain their particular, but also take into account that we would like them to tailor their presentation to talk about the fundamentals of poverty and how their particular fits into shedding light on those fundamental problems. We would communicate all that we are doing to each of the invitees. The order of their participation is taken into account to lead us gently along this path. Victor Rios speaks to more than one race being punished. He talks about people striving for dignity even at their own expense. And, his study shows us the utter futility of the ways in which we are dealing with the results of poverty today, and should point us to a radical shift in fighting poverty and all the ills that poverty brings about. The other speakers add their particulars in the same way.
  1. Since there is a progression, at least in my mind, to the speaker line-up, I would suggest that this new “dignity series” be started next year (Victor Rios is now envisioned to be asked to come next fall 2016). Bryan Stevenson is scheduled for next March 2016 (been here and it was an amazing talk), and Bryan is a continuation of the “don’t shoot” series. But Bryan’s discussion can stand alone as well as be a part of this new series. It is a question as to who is inviting Bryan, and what emphasis he will be asked to give in his presentation. Bryan is important for many reasons, but he should be asked to expand on who he thinks human beings are, and what that means for society and all of its members.

This “setting up” and directing this new series could be taken over by the Center for Ethics and Public Life. There would be an overall direction, and extension into the future, given to this theme. It is something that Luther, and the Decorah community, could build on and use to inform its students and members of their culture and their society.

The particular presentations:

  1. Bringing in Victor Rios and have people read his book, “Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys”; is his website.

I sent an email to Victor Rios commenting on his MN public radio hour (the second evening devoted to the “no broken windows policing” forum), his book, his thesis, and his thesis in action in an Iowa City mother who said that their children were not criminals – they were playing, and our Don’t Shoot series. He would be good to bring to campus/Decorah.

Bob: “Victor,

The left column of the Cedar Rapids Gazette’s Sunday Insight section, 8-2-15, has this quote from Latisha McDaniel of Iowa City who attended a rally on Monday in Iowa City asking for better treatment of black children: “We are tired of our children being treated like they are up to something or are criminals. They play. That does not mean they are a criminal or a suspect.”

Some time ago I heard you on Minnesota Public Radio as the second evening of “broken windows” policing. From that hour presentation of yours, I had the library get your book. Linda read it first, and now I am. Not all the way through, but I’m getting where you are going. The above quote seemed right out of your description of what is happening to young kids.

We, some Decorah community members, joined with Luther College to bring in Colin Gordon from the U of Iowa whose book, “Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the American City,” allowed us to understand how Ferguson came to be. Colin’s keynote was a culmination of Black History Month at Luther along with a number of other events that went under the series title: Don’t Shoot. This was in response to Ferguson.

I have been asking that “Don’t Shoot” group to listen to your MPR presentation, read your book, and then think about inviting you to Luther/Decorah to speak to this issue from your perspective. Since it is summer, and since there is an interim director for diversity studies, I have not been able to meet with the large group to see where they may be on this. But, this email should serve notice to you that we are trying to get Luther to invite you in. We’ll see. Just wanted you to know that we are trying.

So, thanks for your book. Thanks for your MPR presentation. And, thanks for your understanding of what is happening in the US.”

Victor: “I am touched by the honor. Thank you for using my work and trying to get me to pay a visit. I look forward to collaborating with you in the near future. My very best, Victor”

  1. An article in the Mpls StarTribune Sunday (on facebook now too) titled “Brain scans show effects of poverty on kids” is about a new study (Association of Child Poverty, Brain Development, and Academic Achievement) by Seth Pollak, U of Wisc – Madison, showing physical evidence of brain under-development simply based on poverty numbers. I have that study. It would be interesting to bring Pollak to Luther to speak to this study and issue.

This study shows physical evidence where only “soft-science” sociological evidence (which is always argued about) was put forward in these types of claims. This gives impetus to my “A” below. There may be an argument that we can continue identifying particular racial problems, and problems with our social welfare system, to remedy; or, we can understand that poverty creates many of these problems and try to address that at a fundamental level.

This has all been understood for years. But, now there is physical evidence to show what happens when poverty is your world.

  1. On Sunday Aug 2nd on Ira Glass’s “This American Life”, Nikole Hannah-Jones (grew up in Waterloo – was bused to school in Cedar Falls as a child) had a conversation about integration, that it worked, that we “lost interest”, that it should be reinstituted for the good of the country. She talks about how it took 352 years to create the gap between black and white student achievement and that it only took 18 years of integration to halve that gap. She would be good to bring to campus/Decorah.
  1. Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans, was at the National Press Club. After he got done with the obligatory cheerleading for New Orleans, he began to speak in national terms about poverty, race, education, shelter, and jobs. He understood these to be necessary for people to have a good life (pursuit of happiness, and human dignity). It would be interesting to have Landrieu present a “position paper” on these national topics from the perspective of politics.
  1. Bryan Stevenson: Equal Justice Initiative and his book “Just Mercy”. We have already discussed having Bryan come to campus. And, it seems that his understanding, his use of the courts, and his never giving up, are central to our overall theme. Bryan speaks to human dignity. His “particulars” are important and uplifting, but his discussion of who human beings are generally that comes out of his particular understanding and work, are primary to our understanding of human dignity and what it takes to have that dignity.
  1. David Souter: Former Supreme Court Justice who understands that our democracy is in danger because we no longer understand how our country works and our part in running the country (civics). He has made civics education his work after the Supreme Court. We should bring him in. It is part of the Declaration’s “pursuit of happiness”, the government guaranteed “pursuit” of becoming a fully participating member of society. We need to understand our government in order for our government to work correctly for all of us.
  1. Will Allen: urban farmer, Milwaukee, WI, . Co-author, with Charles Wilson, of the book “The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People and Communities. In 2005, Allen was awarded a Ford Foundation leadership grant on behalf of his urban farming work. In 2008, he was awarded the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” for his work on urban farming and sustainable food production. In 2009, the Kellogg Foundation gave Allen a grant to create jobs in urban agriculture.

The United Nations has published a study showing small organic farms are the only way that we can feed the people of the world. Allen has said that it will take at least 50 million urban farmers to help in that effort. Many psychological studies have shown that gardening and small holding farming help people live well adjusted lives; it is a way to live a dignified and fulfilling life. Will Allen can talk about living a dignified life while providing food for the urban poor. And hopefully allowing those poor to “pursue” the happiness that is guaranteed them as a right by our Declaration and Constitution.

  1. Monica Potts: journalist. From “The Other Americans”, “It’s important to me to avoid a trap I think many writers fall into, one that I’m never entirely sure I succeed in avoiding, in which the subjects of articles aren’t presented as real people but rather are offered up as illustrations of suffering. While the contours of life for low-income Americans are shaped by want and need, and it’s important to show what it means to go without in a country so full of plenty, the big problem is that I’m not sure what it accomplishes to write about their plight without also exploring the other parts of their lives. The most it can do is elicit pity from people already inclined to care—at worst, it draws only ridicule. Pity has its uses, but it also has its limits, especially in writing about a population already so misrepresented, ignored, and disempowered.” How do we think about and write about people stuck in poverty?
  1. Housing First: started as a way to get drug addicts off drugs. Recently studies have shown that housing is one of the most important items for any person, especially the poor. This nation should consider building housing for everyone as part of an infrastructure update and build-out. Should look for a representative speaker in this area.

9a. “Evicted” book by

  1. Universal Basic Income – UBI.
  1. Duvall Patrick: MPR 2016 MN MLK day speech.

This is the general outline of a “new don’t shoot” program for 2016-17 and beyond, and the general basic issue of human dignity to be explored:

I am trying to change the direction a little so that all students, faculty, and administration can feel they can support what this group is doing. There would still be “the particular” in the presentations of individual books, studies, and journalistic reporting, but it would be bound up in an overall context of human dignity with an emphasis on baseline changes to affect all people who are stuck in poverty.

What we would be talking about is human dignity. And, that human dignity is guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence along with the right to life and liberty. The “pursuit of happiness” is the third right. It is the “pursuit” that is guaranteed. And, the pursuit of happiness as understood by Jefferson and the other framers is not our modern “psychological” sense of happiness, but rather the ancient sense of becoming a fully participating member of society. With the guarantee, the government must make sure that the means of that pursuit are available to all people: life, liberty, food security, shelter, access to education, access to culture and an understanding of our society, participation in government through understanding how our government works, health, a living wage and a good job, time to develop oneself, and a safe environment.

In a post Colin Gordon being here email exchange that I had with Colin, I broached the idea of a “Marshal Plan” to try to make up for 300 years of black history in the US:

Bob: “I have been thinking about sending you this email since you were here. And, with the continuing bs concerning killing black people, I thought this might be a good time. After I read your book, the thought that kept coming to me was that we should dust off the Marshall Plan and institute a like program here for blacks. There may be some who would have no interest in taking part, but with the horrible history of blacks in the county for the last 300 years or so, I think that nothing short of a total rebuild of their place in the US would work to remedy the past and guarantee a livable future.” Colin: “I like the Marshall Plan idea, which suggests both a form of reparations–but also active rehabilitation of physical space and infrastructure.”

But, after some extended conversations with Linda on this, I understand that to limit reparations and future remedies to one minority doesn’t do justice to the mess we’ve created in this country. And, Victor Rios’s book, “Punished”, shows the utter futility of trying to change reality with our present approaches. It is only getting worse.

As such, I would like to have a conversation about:

A. Adopting a moniker to reflect a more future oriented attempt at changing the reality of life in the US. This is where the “pursuit of happiness” comes in. Grounding these themes in the Declaration of Independence would allow faculty, administration, and students to understand that this is about human dignity and those things that a society must provide to allow people to pursue becoming a fully participating member of that society.

B. Thinking about a focus of scrapping most of the welfare system and replacing it with living wage, single payer health care, integrated education, and jobs as part of national infrastructure work projects. It makes me think that a baseline change in how we interact as a whole society is the only way to include all of us.

C. To make this an ongoing and inclusive task of Luther College and the Decorah Community, this could be the first year of this “human dignity” series. Luther could require all (Paideia) freshmen to attend these presentations, and the Decorah contingent could ask community groups, government entities, churches, etc, to attend these presentations, too. Each succeeding freshman incoming class would be required to attend these lectures and all students, and all students who attended the previous year’s lectures, would be encouraged to continue attending these lectures. This could become a focus for Luther and the students it might end up sending into these arenas.

D. It seems that these people, who are not mega-stars, would be accessible financially for Luther. I would think that we would outline our thematic project for each person and how we think they may fit in to that project. That way we can control the agenda, and give a sense of direction to invitees so that they can tailor their presentations to fit our needs.

VA being misused? (3-2-06)

As someone who has depended on the VA Healthcare System for the last 35 years, I have followed the recent local controversy concerning veterans and what they are entitled to with some interest. Although I think I know most of the issues, some background information about the VA might lead to a more balanced understanding about what is at stake.

The VA hospitals were originally intended for those of us who have “service connected” disabilities, or veterans who have ended up destitute and have no other means of getting healthcare. It was not until 1996 that, because the Democratic Clinton Administration had built up enough of a federal surplus, the VA opened up its healthcare to anyone who had served in the military, regardless of whether in war or not. Even then, there have always been many levels of care that these other veterans fit in to because of their own circumstances, financial and otherwise.

This Republican Bush Administration through tax cuts for the rich, starting two wars, etcetera, has built up the biggest deficit in our country’s history. They now need to balance the budget and part of that balancing involves charging veterans who are not “service connected” disabled, but are some other category, for their VA healthcare.

Our local County Veterans office needs to fill out more forms now than before because since 1996 more veterans are allowed to apply for VA care. And, since private healthcare costs have soared, more veterans want to take advantage of the VA’s low costs. Even though these veterans were not guaranteed totally free healthcare simply by having been members of the military, and even though this huge increase in people using the VA system makes it more difficult for those of us who are “service connected” disabled to receive treatment, I do not begrudge them receiving treatment. I just think people need to understand that “whether people are entitled to healthcare”, and “whether people are entitled to VA healthcare” are two different conversations.

I would agree with the proposition that all people are entitled to healthcare. The VA system and Social Security work so well because they are American socialism in its purest sense. If you think that all people are entitled to healthcare, for whatever reason, I suggest you think about a national “one payer system” and quit trying to get the VA to do what it was never intended to do in the first place.

Opposes making ADC parents work to save benefits.  (11-27-84)

It’s true the economic recovery hasn’t come to Iowa or Winneshiek County, but that doesn’t mean we can’t at least share in the new ‘moral majority’ attitudes sweeping the country.  Consider the proposal put to the county supervisors, namely that ADC parents, or parent, be required to do community work to continue receiving their welfare benefits.  County relief thought it so good an idea it should be adopted immediately and not even wait for consideration till next fiscal year.

Because of Iowa’s economic recession, many people today find themselves in very difficult financial situations regardless of education or economic background.  There simply aren’t enough jobs to go around.  To add to these people’s unasked for plight, the additional baggage of a morally degrading “mandatory” work program is in my opinion highly objectionable, although, it seems, in vogue in light of Reagan’s re-election and his administration’s 25 percent cut in Federal programs designed to aid the poor.

What might be some assumptions held by people towards those who receive ADC or welfare which allow proposals like these to be put forth?  Could some be: 1. They need prodding to go to work, i.e., they’re lazy; 2. They aren’t actively seeking employment; 3. They, or she, would have no problem finding and affording a babysitter while working; 4. They have adequate transportation to and from assigned work; 5. There is something morally wrong with these people or they wouldn’t be on welfare; 6. People would rather spend time doing mandatory work than seek permanent employment; 7. It’s more important for a woman (one parent situation) to pay another woman to raise her children than to be allowed to raise them herself.  And many other similar statements heard much too often.

Yes, the work may be needed and directed towards the public good.  And yes, ADC parents have been “willing” to work (faced with a virtual cut-off of benefits who wouldn’t?).  But why can’t we take that seven-county budget of $58,514 and develop an effective public works program where anyone out of work can be guaranteed a real job?  It’s in our history isn’t it?  Multiplied statewide we would already have a $900,000 budget available.  Is it beyond our intellectual capacities to create and coordinate a program like this, or is it just easier and more “moral majority” to dump on those who already find themselves in very tough situations.

I challenge the Winneshiek County supervisors, the Northeast Iowa Community Action Corp., and the citizens of Winneshiek County to be “Christian” instead of “vogue” and tackle these problems with some meaningful and uplifting solutions, and not simply cover them up by using the backs of temporarily unfortunate people.