As I awoke to the many tributes to Martin Luther King, Jr. this morning, I happened upon an editorial by Martin Luther King III, in the New York Times. He draws our attention to MLK Jr.’s efforts to address poverty. With stark images from the Poor People’s Campaign, King III points to his father’s commitment to advocating for policies that lift people out of poverty. He concludes his piece with a call for the creation of a Cabinet position focused on fighting poverty and the urgency of passing a universal basic income. Amen.
Supporting access to education will never offer relief from systemic racism if people remain hungry. It is clear at every level, from pre-K to higher education, that people who struggle with food and housing and healthcare also struggle in school. Our claims of the benefits of education, in terms of social mobility, are limited by this essential barrier. While thousands of students do manage to earn high school diplomas and even college degrees while hungry and homeless they are tasked with having to work twice as hard as their better funded peers, usually carry greater debt, and frequently hover near academic suspension because they cannot keep up with it all. Succeeding under these conditions is nothing short of miraculous. It sure as hell isn’t equal or equitable. No, without an end to poverty there will be no equity in anything.
But we have been fighting, at all levels of education, for that equity for many years. Indeed, the Head Start program (started in 1965) is one such effort. Giving under-served preschoolers access to reasonable pre-kindergarten programs is a great idea. Indeed, it is so important, one wonders why we do not yet have universal pre-k programs.
We have free lunch in the K-12 system as well, and the importance of this was never so clear as in this pandemic. Many districts scrambled to get breakfast and lunch to families in need while schools were closed. It was an excellent effort. Still, I wonder why we ask schools to solve the hunger problem, when other family members may also be hungry. It is a burden schools take on, but it doesn’t feel like good policy.
We have Pell Grants to allow some of the neediest students to attend college at no cost. Well, sort of, because when we factor in the cost of food and housing, these funds are in no way sufficient. It seems like this program, though well intentioned, just masks the funding problem. If we had free higher education (instead of these last dollar “free” programs, that just play shell games with costs and loans), perhaps we could focus on addressing the real costs of college attendance.
I know, I have said variations of these things lots of times. Today, though, there is one tiny but significant thing I would like to point out in King III’s essay. He calls for the establishment of a Cabinet position to fight poverty. I agree, but I would like to suggest that we abandon the word “fight.” I want a Cabinet position to cultivate equity instead.
We have already had a War on Poverty, a War on Drugs, and a War on Terrorism and not one of them has been a success. Each one may have led to winning a small battle or two, but they never ended poverty, they never stopped the use of drugs, and fighting terrorism just seems like an impossible and endless task. No, we need a new metaphor that abandons the battle stance.
Lakoff and Johnson’s classic work, Metaphors We Live By, lays out the ways in which our metaphors shape our understandings of the world around us and the tasks at hand. Battle/war/fighting metaphors may be useful for short term struggles. They help build energy and bonding against the “other” at hand. But for long term thinking, well battles are too draining. We lose soldiers over time and without some clear wins, the esprit de corps wanes while the hatred remains. Ending poverty and supporting equity are ongoing and long-term. Wars and fighting will never suffice.
So, I am asking for a Cabinet position that draws on a growth metaphor. Let us cultivate the relationships and commitments necessary to build a poverty free world. Let us understand that poverty is a (the) root cause of inequity and examine all of the branches of our society that are contributing to sustaining poverty. Let us understand our policies as the life supports of an ecosystem that needs constant attention and nurturing, and plan for continuous review so that system never gets so out of balance again. And most of all, let us understand the fundamental need for collaboration, because nothing grows in isolation.
Yes, Mr. King, III, I agree with the need for this important Cabinet position. And I agree wholeheartedly, with your father’s statement that “It is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.” But let us avoid the fighting and start cultivating instead. We have been fighting long enough. It is time to nurture that poverty-free and equitable world together.