The Anti-Poverty Institution That Shall Not Be Named

Before we get to that, it’s worth noting that just as I don’t think children should be held accountable for their parents, parents aren’t responsible for the opinions of their grown children. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Peter Edelman has an op-ed piece in the NY Times decrying poverty. Among the things that we could do to reduce poverty:

A surefire politics of change would necessarily involve getting people in the middle — from the 30th to the 70th percentile — to see their own economic self-interest. If they vote in their own self-interest, they’ll elect people who are likely to be more aligned with people with lower incomes as well as with them. As long as people in the middle identify more with people on the top than with those on the bottom, we are doomed. The obscene amount of money flowing into the electoral process makes things harder yet.

But history shows that people power wins sometimes. That’s what happened in the Progressive Era a century ago and in the Great Depression as well. The gross inequality of those times produced an amalgam of popular unrest, organization, muckraking journalism and political leadership that attacked the big — and worsening — structural problem of economic inequality. The civil rights movement changed the course of history and spread into the women’s movement, the environmental movement and, later, the gay rights movement. Could we have said on the day before the dawn of each that it would happen, let alone succeed? Did Rosa Parks know?

We have the ingredients. For one thing, the demographics of the electorate are changing. The consequences of that are hardly automatic, but they create an opportunity. The new generation of young people — unusually distrustful of encrusted power in all institutions and, as a consequence, tending toward libertarianism — is ripe for a new politics of honesty. Lower-income people will participate if there are candidates who speak to their situations. The change has to come from the bottom up and from synergistic leadership that draws it out. When people decide they have had enough and there are candidates who stand for what they want, they will vote accordingly.

Very hopey and changey. But did you note what’s missing?

Unions.

It’s worth noting that Edelman’s son is Jonah Edelman who makes his living busting teachers unions for a living. Coinky-dink? Maybe.

Perhaps this is a ‘New Left’ vestigial atavism–many unions were not very friendly to the left during the 1960s and also didn’t do much to assist in the War on Poverty (to put it mildly). No idea. But we have to get past that: right now, they’re the only bulwark against corporate greed we’ve got (even if too often they resemble the Maginot Line). Citizen movements are great, but permanent institutions that can advocate day in and day out for higher wages and better working conditions matter. If you care about poverty, then unions will have to matter.

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2 Responses to The Anti-Poverty Institution That Shall Not Be Named

  1. I hear what you’re saying re: unions, and I definitely value the changes they brought for workers as a result of their activism. However, I think that same distrust you mentioned for the younger generations (I straddle the X/Y (millennial) divide, being born in 1981) towards entrenched institutions extends to some degree towards unions. At least in my head, the pendulum swinging too far to the union-side of things (or the unions themselves being intransigent in the face of radically declining economic circumstances) resulted in CBA’s that were economically untenable for the management side (e.g., GM). That’s certainly no excuse for other poor management practices that didn’t leave enough room in the coffers to deal with CBA mandated pension legacies, but I would think that that same distrust might extend to the unions…or at least the more ‘traditional’ ones (manufacturing versus, say, the service workers’ union.)

  2. MV says:

    Perhaps one of the reasons that the unions weren’t friendly towards the left in the 60’s was based on previous government action? I seem to recall those that were previously friendly to the left being destroyed many decades earlier. A toxic combination of not my problem and we’d like to survive…

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