Raleigh News and Observer, April 14, 2008: Poor follow-up

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The Good Book famously says that we’ll always have the poor, and no sense arguing with so authoritative a source. But a just society that has the financial power should do all it can to reduce the number of people in poverty’s grip. The alarming fact is that the nation’s poverty rate is on an upswing, after declining for decades.

The issue surfaced recently because of the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose final journey to Memphis was in support of sanitation workers striking for decent wages and working conditions. The News & Observer’s Kristin Collins reported that nearly 15 percent of North Carolinians live now below the poverty line, the same rate as in 1979. Nationally, the poverty rate is slightly higher than it was in 1969.

King’s moral crusade for civil rights inevitably widened to encompass the inequity of poverty in a wealthy nation. Sen. Robert Kennedy, then a candidate for president and himself assassinated just months later, made fighting poverty a centerpiece of his platform. The “war on poverty” declared by President Johnson had thrown a spotlight on the problem. Hopes were high that a national scourge could be rolled back significantly.

Race relations have waxed and waned since the 1960s, and so has attention to the plight of the poor. Back when Johnson made fighting poverty a national campaign, hunger and want were seen in the gaunt faces of kids in Appalachia. Anti-poverty programs lifted many of those communities. Today, entrenched poverty is more likely found in single-parent households in the inner city or in apartments shared by multiple immigrant families. Modern poverty also can strike homes where both parents work at jobs that pay too little or where a catastrophic illness drains the family financially.

Welfare wasn’t a panacea, and government of course can’t do the job alone. But assisting families out of poverty remains a challenge that our elected leaders must be prepared to address.

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