I’ve found myself this week in more of a reflective mood than usual. Easily understood; my time as Executive Director at WISCAP is ending with the month of June as I head into retirement. And in my thoughts, surprisingly, I have found myself having something in common with White House Chief-of-Staff Reince Priebus. We both consider ourselves “blessed.” Although, respectfully, I would offer that I have a more legitimate rationale for this emotion.
I feel blessed because I have been able to spend my entire career of 40 years in
service to Community Action; working to help advance economic self-sufficiency for our low-income neighbors and doing so in the company of some of the finest and most dedicated public servants to be found anywhere.
The underpinning of Community Action, when created as part of the 1960’s War on Poverty, was that poverty is best attacked through decisions made by local communities, fought on the local level, with access to resources across the spectrum: federal, state, local and private. That underpinning has not changed; it remains as valid and as powerful today as it did when I cashed my first paycheck from CAP Services, headquartered in Stevens Point, back in 1977.
Community Action Agencies in Wisconsin – and across the nation – are doing tremendous work: helping create jobs and businesses for low-income individuals, giving a Head Start to those in pre-school, building housing and making existing housing more energy efficient, providing transitional assistance to the homeless, being a resource for food and other emergency assistance, and on and on.
Last year, in 2016, Wisconsin’s Community Action Agencies served over 212,000 individuals. And they did it in partnership with their local community organizations, churches and businesses. It doesn’t matter if the community is urban or rural. It doesn’t matter if the community is Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative. Community Action continues to work in partnership with all.
Over the years, I have seen this work expand and solidify. And I have seen agencies grow more innovative as they have learned more about the root causes of poverty, tried new approaches and pursued new directions – and as they have been forced to do more even as the resources available for this work have been shrinking.
All of that is growth and change for the better. But I have also seen a change in our society’s attitudes on poverty that has not been for the better. As a nation, we used to wage war on poverty. Now we seem more often to be waging war on poor people.
I don’t have an explanation on why this is. Perhaps those of us in Community Action have done less than required in our core responsibility of educating the public on poverty and the reality faced by households infected by this disease. Perhaps there is so much fear and stress in our society today that many turn easily to attacking those with less as a twisted sort of defense mechanism.
Whatever the cause, it is tragic and it is totally wrong. I have met hundreds of low-income families and individuals over my career and I have found myself constantly in awe of their strength and courage in dealing with their circumstances. Waking up every morning facing the stress of getting through that one day. Will there be enough food on the table? Will the car make it to work without breaking down? How to afford medical care for a sick child? Will the rent or mortgage be covered this month; will there still be a roof over the family? Will the children be safe in a less than ideal neighborhood? And then going to bed every night sighing with exhaustion from surviving another day, with nothing left to give for the dreams and longer-term goals of a brighter future down the road.
Instead of attacking those in poverty, as if they have willingly chosen the life they are forced to live; we should, instead, honor their fortitude, respect their struggles, and re-commit ourselves to providing the tools that are needed to make the American dream a reality for all.
The author John Donne famously wrote: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” We are all in this together. Not one of us will be able to reach the full potential of our own dreams until we all make sure that opportunities to reach that same potential exist for everyone else.
I know that Community Action Agencies will continue to strive towards that goal of inclusion and equal opportunity. And I am just as confident that WISCAP, under its new leadership, will continue to be at their side in that struggle.
If I have one parting wish, it is that our society, as a whole, will dedicate itself to engaging once again in a serious and comprehensive ‘War on Poverty’ and that we will do so with sufficient resources and with love and respect for our low-income friends and neighbors.
June 29, 2017