Pols have a poverty of ideas

Promises, promises. The candidates hand them out with increasing frequency as Election Day approaches. But some members of the electorate have received no promises this year. In a booming economy, poverty in America remains overlooked by many.

“America’s Democratic Promise,” a public seminar and town meeting on Oct. 18 asked, “How should government and institutions of higher education collaborate in a sustained, comprehensive plan to abolish poverty in America and realize the democratic promise of the Declaration of Independence?”. The Philadelphia Higher Education Network for Neighborhood Development sponsored the event.

This topic proved to be quite a mouthful for the representatives of Buchanan, Nader, Bush and Gore. Instead, the real heart of the evening came from the panelists who claimed no specific political affiliation.

Bishop Dickie Robbins, after humbly stating that he was not sure why he qualified to be a panelist, condemned politicians for using poverty as a political football and academics for viewing poverty as more of a theory than a reality. He was one of 11 panelists, who along with the politicians, addressed a small crowd in Bodek Lounge, Houston Hall.

Another panelist, Ndidi Anyaegbunam, an award-winning debater from Temple University, continued where Bishop Robbins had stopped, calling for a three-way collaboration between government, university students and community members. She stressed that change can only be facilitated using these resources together.

These impassioned calls to action were prefaced by opening statements from the political candidate representatives, who delivered the expected party lines. While the representative from the Reform party attacked the NAFTA trade treaty, the Republican linked poverty to moral decay; the Democrat called for a vague “progressive vision,” and the Green Party representative spoke about “sustainable communities.”

After the party reps spoke their piece, several individual panelists shared their own experiences as community partners, motivated students, professors and social servants.

The question-and-answer session showed how effective Robbins and Anyaegbunam and been in calling for more practical action and less theory. The pols, when asked whether they could draw a connection between broad structural policy and small scale direct action, continued to be vague, paying homage to the concepts of individual self-sufficiency, strong government drug policies, and justice.

An audience member proceeded to point out that the political representatives were four white, middle-class, middle-aged men of privilege, and from that point on, the discussion centered much more around those who live the daily task of combatting poverty.

The seminar did not conclude with a recommended plan of action for government and institutions of higher education. This partnership became recognized as fundamentally flawed, leaving out an equally important third party — the members of impoverished comunities. The concensus became that abolition of poverty lies in each person’s active engagement.


Originally published on October 26, 2000