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Legacy fund hosts symposium on poverty in America

Published: November 2, 2012
Section: News, Top Stories

Professors, students and historians gathered in the Hassenfeld Conference Center on Thursday for a symposium on Poverty Since the Great Society. The event, sponsored by the Louis D. Brandeis Legacy Fund for Social Justice, is a result of the collaborative work between students and scholars exploring poverty alleviation at the Heller School for Social Policy.

Founded by Jules Bernstein ’57, the fund supports Brandeis students and enhances campus life in efforts to support social justice ideals valued highly by Louis D. Brandeis. These series of initiatives include, funding scholarships, sponsoring events and supporting projects that all address social concerns on and off campus.

The symposium honored the 50th anniversary of Michael Harrington’s best-seller “The Other America: Poverty in the United States,” a short but intense book that inspired the war against poverty in the affluent American society of the 1960s. It consisted of a luncheon, keynote speech, breakout sessions, a panel discussion and a plenary keynote speech.

The keynote speaker of the symposium, Professor Robert Kuttner (HS), noted that Harrington’s book was widely ignored until a critic named Dwight MacDonald published a review in the New Yorker magazine, which ultimately sparked the interest of both President Kennedy and President Johnson to demand a war against poverty.

“Rereading the book 50 years later, you can understand how it moved a whole generation and two presidents,” Kuttner said. “It is a narrative, combined with just enough statistics and social science. It has a sweetness and an idealism as well as a moral urgency without ever becoming strident or self-righteous. It calls America to its best, and shames what is worst.”

Bernstein, a Washington, D.C., based labor lawyer, has advocated for workers’ rights for more than half a century. He serves on the board of directors of the National Labor College, Interfaith Worker Justice and the National Employment Law Project. He is also a member of the advisory board of the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life.

Bernstein briefly spoke about his relationship with Harrington and the importance of continuing to honor his legacy. As a close friend of Harrington’s, Bernstein emphasized the importance of the continuation of discussion and action in the fight against ending poverty. He described the labor movement in the United States as a leading force in fighting poverty.

Harrington, who passed away in 1989, wrote about the invisibility of the poor that resulted from most Americans living in rural isolation or in urban slums in the 1960s. His writing style, according to Peter Dreier, a politics professor at Occidental College, appealed to readers because it was “informal, accessible and morally outraged but not self-righteous.”

Kuttner, co-editor of “The American Prospect” and a distinguished senior fellow at Demos, has written several books, including the recent New York Times bestseller, “Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency.” He has been an adjunct faculty member, on-and-off, during his years at Brandeis, but beginning next year he will join the Heller School as the Meyer and Ida Kirstein Visiting Professor in Social Planning and Administration.

Kuttner highlighted the progress made by Congress to take action in the war on poverty but that ultimately failed to end racism, universalize social insurance and solve the problem of the welfare trap, he said. In 1964, President Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act that included several social programs to promote the general welfare of the impoverished population. Poverty rates succeeded to fall from 22 percent in 1959 to 11 percent in 1973 but then relentlessly began to rise again.

Kuttner juxtaposed the new hidden poverty of today to the old hidden poverty as described by Michael Harrington.

“Today, we have an invisible poverty in the form of the downward mobility of the working middle class,” Kuttner said. He spoke about the laws today that exist against the misclassification of workers, stressing that they are not enforced. More workers are being organized as contingent work because they allow employers to isolate workers and prevent them from joining unions.

Kuttner closed his speech by emphasizing the need for a movement to end poverty today in America.

He said that he never believed he would see the day when gays and lesbians could marry, the existence of disability rights legislation, women playing sports other than field hockey and half of the graduating classes of law and medical schools consisting of females.

So how can we explain these trends? It’s simple, according to Kuttner. There was a gay rights movement, disability rights movement, a Title IX movement and a women’s rights movement—all aiming to achieve a common purpose and reality.

“That’s what it takes to accomplish social change in this country,” Kuttner said. “When you look back at American history, you never know when a movement is going to burst into flames.”

Kuttner argues that while the Occupy movement has made progress, the biggest thing is that it has given “a great narrative and a great slogan: the 1 percent.” The reason behind this, according to Kuttner, is that organizing is hard and there is a slight self-indulgence on the part of anarchists.

“It’s not accidental that the Occupy movement did not lead to a broader movement. I am still waiting for a movement that is not ashamed of having to organize, not ashamed of having leaders, not ashamed of having specific goals,” Kuttner said.

David Duhalde-Wine MPP/MBA ’14, discussed the importance of the youth becoming involved in grassroots campaigns that work on social justice issues. He said that the most important thing that students at Brandeis can do is become involved, face-to-face with others who share a common passion for fighting for social justice.

“What’s been lost in our current generation is this sense of individualism,” Duhalde-Wade said. “While I think that Facebook and Twitter are super important, I think that people coming together makes a lot more of a difference.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that “The Other America was a novel.” It is a work of non-fiction. It also misspelled David Duhalde Wine’s name.