Building the Unsettling Force: Anti-poverty Conference in Louisville

Birgit Daiber

Report on the poverty conference in Louisville, 16-19 July 2009

“Building the Unsettling Force” was the slogan of the National Anti-Poverty Conference held from July 16 through 19, 2009, on the campus of Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky by a coalition including the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign (PPEHRC), the Social Welfare Action Alliance (SWAA), Women in Transition, and Disappeared in America – Hiding the Poor, as well as local action groups.

Some 200 people from all over the USA participated, from Florida to California, from Maine to Oregon and also from Canada. It was not a conference about poverty, but rather one of the anti-poverty movements of the people affected by poverty, who are present in most towns in America today. Represented were grassroots movements to which, due to the economic crisis, ever more people from classically middle-class backgrounds are gravitating, and also social workers from government agencies and care personnel from the hospitals, who have either been affected by unemployment, or else can no longer bear the deterioration of working conditions. Some trade unionists and university professors also took part in the conference.

These movements have existed since the nineties, they organize demonstrations and call for civil disobedience, their demos have slogans like “We are human” (Louisville), “Where do we go now?” (Sacramento), “Transition in Action” (Denver) or “This is not the country we want” (Phoenix). But they also organize such practical courses as “survival training,” where tips and tricks for survival, based on experience, are passed on – like “how not to lose your house.” What they don’t do is to cooperate directly with foundations and social-welfare organizations, or participate in support projects. Also, the support organizations have no more money, due to the bankruptcy of public budgets, and the organizations which depend on private sponsoring are also impoverished.

The anti-poverty movements want to be the political and non-corruptible voice of the people affected by poverty. What they want is not more money, jobs or public housing, they want autonomy, dignity and economic human rights. In their key statements, they refer to the UN Human Rights Charter, particularly Articles 23 through 26, where basic economic rights are defined. They raise the issues of poverty and deprivation of rights, and want to get off of welfare. They claim to be the other America, which you don’t see on TV or in the movies. They also say: “Obama is our hero, but he can’t change the system – that’s what we have to do!”

Many Black Americans took part in the conference, many young people, many Hispanics and people with physical handicaps. Spanish could be heard at least as often as English. Again and again, they bore personal witness to their suffering and their rage; they said that it was only their being together in action groups that helped them not to despair. Homelessness and complete impoverishment, the criminalization of immigrants from Central and South America as well as the fact that homeless families frequently have their children taken away from them, and the zero-tolerance policy in schools which criminalizes even five-year-old children, were the most urgent issues during the conference, which were frequently reported about. Young rappers attacked poverty and criminalization in their poems and songs, on the first day, a clergyman from California opened the session with a passionate prayer for community and love. There was plenty of crying and comforting at this conference. It was an unbelievably emotional atmosphere such as I have never experienced in Europe.

At the same time however, major topics were also addressed in the plenary speeches and in the workshops. At issue were civil rights, health, the right to secure jobs, housing and the building of local and international networks.

Richard Monje and Robert Kurtycz of Workers Unite in Chicago took the current expenditures for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as a measure for comparison, and asked: What useful thing could be done with those $879 billion? On the other hand, they pointed out: 150 million U.S. citizens are underinsured, 47 million aren’t insured at all, including 9 million uninsured children, there are a million homeless people, 53 percent of old people have no pension entitlements, and the six largest employers in the USA make no health insurance or pension contributions any more for new hirees. Every month in the USA, there are 300,000 foreclosures of homes and apartments.

Trade union membership has dropped drastically over the past fifty years. In 1954, 35% of all workers were organized in trade unions; by 2007, that was down to only 7%. Monie says people are afraid to join the unions.

Monje and Kurtycz propagated the idea of a new “social contract,” an idea which goes back to the French Revolution, and demanded that a due share of what is produced be managed by the workers themselves.

Another idea raised by Virginia Majewski of the Indiana University School of Social Work recalled Eleanor Roosevelt’s “homestead experiment” of the thirties, under which unemployed people, primarily mine workers, were given houses and a small piece of land for self-sufficiency in food. Moreover, small trade enterprises were set up in the co-operative societies thus created. Majewski thinks that such self-subsistence co-operative societies offer a possibility for escaping from poverty.

In his presentation, Sam Coleman of the Social Welfare Action Alliance (SWAA) addressed the situation of social workers in the USA. He asks whether social work in the USA is open to Marxist analyses. He said that there is still is very restrictive speech control, and that exploitation may not be called that; you can say anything you want, as long as it’s not in leftist terminology. One problem is, he added, that students only refer to moral concepts because they have no idea about systemic structures. However, in view of the fact that many social workers and professors at the universities are tired of educating and training people for a system which is itself sick, Marxist analyses are increasingly cropping up; Marxist solutions, however, are still taboo, he said, a “no-go.” Coleman calls for people’s universities in which possible solutions to the poverty problem can be learned. And he calls for think tanks.

Trudi Goldberg (she is, by the way, a member of the Memorandum Group supported by the RLS) and the National Jobs for All Coalition also referred to Roosevelt and the New Deal of the thirties. The unemployment figures for June 2009 mean that almost 30 million workers are either completely or partially unemployed. All across the country, demonstrations for new, secure jobs are to be held on the first Friday of each month. In November, a large conference is to be held in New York, at which a just economic system which is ecologically compatible and includes an adequate social and material infrastructure is to be discussed.

At a workshop on international networking called “Building from local to global movements,” the main issues involved Central and South America and the situation of immigrants from these countries. However, another issue was also the American-Canadian Social Forum, which is to be held in Detroit from June 22 through 26, 2010. Before the actual Social Forum, a large anti-poverty march is to be organized, which is to proceed from Mississippi to Detroit. In addition, an International Day is planned during the Social Forum, which could get very interesting if the initiatives from North America, Latin America and Europe meet for a common discussion.

The best way to sum up the overall impression from this conference could be: Things are happening in America. What is most impressive is the great variety of small local networks which are addressing both with practical issues of survival strategies and also the basic questions of overcoming poverty; their political practice involves permanently raising the issue of poverty. Many recall the self-management and self-help movements of the seventies and eighties in our country, much of it seems very much charged with religious references, but there is also much that is of great interest beyond the boundaries of the USA and Canada. Of great interest for us Europeans is the radical reference to human rights which the American anti-poverty networks have. Only in France is there such a tradition of demanding human rights and equality with reference to poverty and social exclusion. In all other countries, especially in Germany, we seem to be more concerned with demanding a little bit more here and a little bit different there. Of course, the unregulated capitalism that exists in the USA, which has no general social risk safeguards, is much more brutal than our relatively regulated capitalisms in Europe. But here, too, the feeding of poverty at a low standard also means humiliation and deprivation of dignity for the persons affected, and is no different from a denial of economic human rights. Perhaps this crisis will spawn a new civil rights movement against poverty in our country, too.