RICHARDSON: Poverty of soul

January 12, 2014 

Fifty years ago, on Jan. 8, 1964, during his State of the Union speech, President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared his war on poverty. Johnson was not the first president to attempt to wipe out poverty, but like other wars, such as the war on drugs, this war has been a failure.

In 1964, the nation had a poverty rate of 19 percent. The population was 179.3 million, according to the Census Bureau. In 2013, the poverty rate was 15 percent, and there are 317 million of us. In the ‘60s, roughly 34 million Americans lived in poverty. By 2013, that number was more than 47 million.

The war on poverty didn’t fail because more folks went on welfare rolls. It wasn’t a failure because Head Start, Vista and Job Corps didn’t work. It failed because the poverty it sought to claim victory over wasn’t the poverty that needed killing. The poverty that needs to die is not about wealth or resources.

A year after President Johnson started his war, Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan issued a report, “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action.” Though his report, castigated at the time, was about the black family, the issues it presented are color-blind. The report was prophetic, not just forecasting the fate of the African-American family, but the trap of poverty in mind and spirit that has grown throughout this country.

The poverty I’m talking about has invaded almost every sector of society -- from Wall Street bankers to welfare queens and from politicians to preachers. If we could erase the kind of poverty where we would do almost anything for a buck -- steal from parents, Ponzi scheme our best friends, manipulate energy markets, and sell and buy food stamps on the underground market -- we would really be doing something. Poverty of mind and spirit is what we ought to fight, but unfortunately, that victory is beyond our reach.

The ‘60s were far from perfect, but I would take the family values of that era over what I see walking around today. In every home there was a preacher belting out the same sermon: education, education, education. If I heard my mother say it once, I heard it thousands of times. And that message resounded from people who had no sheepskins gracing their walls or initials behind their names. The message was inescapable. There was no question about finishing school. If I had uttered the word “dropout,” I would have found my left cheek three blocks away. Now, the script has been flipped.

While there was a fair amount of corruption in the 1960s, we have perfected it in the 21st century. And with the increased use of technology, we are not only losing our shorts to scammers, but we’ve also lost our identities and our privacy. And some of us have lost our minds. While heroin and marijuana were the drugs of the ‘60s, now there is crystal meth, Oxycontin and pills for every occasion. It’s no joke. I’ve seen people walking around talking to themselves. No phone, no Bluetooth, but they were talking to someone. Maybe their invisible friend. And no, they weren’t praying.

The poverty we should try to erase is the absence of soul. Take a twirl on Facebook or enter the Twitterverse (Let me pause here to give the root definition of Twitter as in twit: a silly annoying person) and you will see all kinds of stupidity.

If we don’t like the outcome of something we tweet our displeasure. Before you know it, the comment ends up on CNN. Just ask Dee Dee McCarron, mom of A.J. McCarron, Alabama’s quarterback. She tweeted after Jameis Winston, Florida State University’s quarterback, beat Auburn. Her tweet was about his postgame interview: “Am I listening to English?”

She should have remembered the wise words of Thumper from the 1942 Disney film, “Bambi.” “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” Here’s some good advice to follow before we pontificate electronically: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

Charles E. Richardson is The Telegraph’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at 478-744-4342 or via email at crichardson@macon.com. Tweet @crichard1020.

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