Bruce Springsteen and UNC Law School Shine Light on Serious Poverty Problems

Two recent events warn us about the serious social problems associated with poverty in the US.  First, Bruce Springsteen sent a letter to the editor of his local paper warning about the impacts of Republican budget cuts on the poor.  Also last week, I attended a great conference sponsored by the UNC School of Law.  You can read a summary of the conference and download some helpful publications.  Some common themes emerge from the Boss’s letter and the UNC conference.  Right-wing conservatives in many states (including New Jersey and North Carolina) are aggressively pushing pro-corporate economic policies.  Their give-aways to big business will be paid for on the backs of the poor and less fortunate who can least afford such cuts.

This is a symptom of the massive wealth gap between the richest families and the rest of us.  In fact, just one percent of Americans now control 40 percent of the nation’s wealth.  Just 25 years ago, the top 12 percent only controlled one-third of the wealth.   These articles also point to the importance of educating the public about how the problems of poverty affect us all.  Clearly, these issues will be important during the 2012 political campaigns.  It should be an area for the Democrats to win the debate– particularly with stronger White House leadership.  However, these stories also stress the important role that state-level politics and budgetary problems have in making the problems of poverty even worse.
Click below to learn why poverty problems are more serious and important now than ever.

Bruce Springsteen Thanks Local Paper for Attention to Poverty

Moved by an article in his local paper (INCLUDED BELOW), the Boss has once again waded into politics. In a letter to the editor (INCLUDED BELOW) published in his local paper, New Jersey’s Asbury Park Press, Bruce Springsteen applauds an article on state budget cuts and the dire straits of anti-poverty groups.  New Jersey’s Governor, Republican Chris Christie, has proposed steep cuts to state assistance programs and the article that caught Springsteen’s eye focused on how those cuts would curb services for the poor.  Springsteen, whose lyrics are often about the downtrodden in society, is no stranger to national or New Jersey politics. Christie is a fanatical Springsteen fan who had a cover band play his inauguration when Springsteen declined.

Springsteen has endorsed and played concerts for Democratic candidates in the past, including John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008. And he was particularly involved in the 1984 Presidential campaign, when the meaning of his song “Born in the U.S.A.” became something of a campaign issue.

Bruce Springsteen Letter to the Editor: Story on poverty, aid cuts gives voice to voiceless, Asbury Park Press, Mar. 31, 2011

Thank you for your March 27 front-page story by Michael Symons, “As poverty rises, cuts target aid.” The article is one of the few that highlights the contradictions between a policy of large tax cuts, on the one hand, and cuts in services to those in the most dire conditions, on the other.

Also, you’ve shone some light on anti-poverty workers and analysts such as Adele LaTourette, Meara Nigro, Cecilia Zalkind and Raymond Castro, among others, all of whom have something important to add to the discussion: real information and actual facts about what is happening below the poverty line.

These are voices that in our current climate are having a hard time being heard, not just in New Jersey, but nationally. Finally, your article shows that the cuts are eating away at the lower edges of the middle class, not just those already classified as in poverty, and are likely to continue to get worse over the next few years. I’m always glad to see my hometown newspaper covering these issues.

Bruce Springsteen – COLTS NECK

The Ghost Of Tom Joad By Bruce Springsteen

Men walkin’ ‘long the railroad tracks
Goin’ someplace there’s no goin’ back
Highway patrol choppers comin’ up over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretchin’ round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleepin’ in their cars in the southwest
No home no job no peace no rest

The highway is alive tonight
But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
Searchin’ for the ghost of Tom Joad

He pulls prayer book out of his sleeping bag
Preacher lights up a butt and takes a drag
Waitin’ for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last
In a cardboard box ‘neath the underpass
Got a one-way ticket to the promised land
You got a hole in your belly and gun in your hand
Sleeping on a pillow of solid rock
Bathin’ in the city aqueduct

The highway is alive tonight
But where it’s headed everybody knows
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
Waitin’ on the ghost of Tom Joad

Now Tom said “Mom, wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there’s a fight ‘gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I’ll be there
Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand
Or decent job or a helpin’ hand
Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you’ll see me.”

The highway is alive tonight
But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes
I’m sittin’ downhere in the campfire light
With the ghost of old Tom Joad

As poverty rises in NJ, cuts target aid by MICHAEL SYMONS -Asbury Park Press – March 27, 2011

TRENTON — Poverty is rising, demand for food stamps has rocketed and the job market remains tepid at best, more than three years after the economy began to crater.

Against that backdrop of need is a harsh reality anti-poverty groups say they struggle to overcome: Much of the public doesn’t want to hear about it. Driven by Gov. Chris Christie here and Tea Partyers in Washington, the conversation is all about cutting government services — the faster the better.

As a pair of reports measuring societal challenges facing New Jersey were released last week, one about poverty and the other about child well-being, one of the common themes was about using the sobering numbers to try to change the conversation and wrest back a voice in the public-policy debate.

There were also disagreements about how aggressively to push their case.  “We’re always much too polite when it comes to this fear of raising the issue of class warfare,” said Meara Nigro of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition. She said wealthy companies benefit, and programs for the poor and middle class are cut. “We just need to be better at messaging. The Republicans are great at it.”

Adele LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition, said that while polls indicate people are concerned about poverty and hunger, they vote for candidates that don’t share those priorities in elections. There’s a disconnect there she thinks is driven by race.

“Racism plays a huge role in the fact that people don’t see it, don’t want to see it,” LaTourette said. “I think you get into an “us and them.’ People feel that if there are people living in poverty . . . as long as it’s not them — they’re not OK with it, but they’re OK enough with it. They would never say they’re OK with it, but I think you get into that incredible dichotomy of the way this society is structured. I know that’s a huge thing to say, but that’s what I think is true.”

With the Legislature’s intensive review of Christie’s budget proposal getting under way in hearings that begin this week, anti-poverty groups have keyed in — with some familiar refrains — on portions they want reversed before a plan is adopted in three months.

A restructuring of general assistance included in Christie’s proposed budget would cut benefits to people in the program by 7 percent to 11 percent, said Herb Levine, executive director of the Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness.

“So where is the parallel sacrifice on the millionaires’ part?” said Levine, bemoaning what he calls a “fundamental mean-spiritedness that is at the core of the current assault on government.  “These are the poorest, poorest people. And you’re asking them to take a cut while you’re giving a free pass on this side,” Levine said. “That’s got to be our message. We’ve got to put that on the ballot.”

Christie vetoed legislation that would have temporarily raised taxes on income exceeding $1 million. Senior policy analyst Raymond Castro of New Jersey Policy Perspective was also critical of planned cuts in business taxes worth nearly $200 million in the first year, growing to $690 million by the fifth year.

“It’s really alarming,” Castro said. “We are cutting assistance to low-income people at the same time we’re providing hundreds of millions in tax breaks to large corporations. It’s just unacceptable, and I think it would be unacceptable to the public if they understood that. And I don’t think that they do.”

Maybe an education campaign would help, said the Rev. Bruce Davidson of the Anti-Poverty Network.  Davidson said he thinks one could be built around last year’s cut to the Earned Income Tax Credit, which was trimmed from 25 percent of the federal benefit to 20 percent for its roughly 485,000 recipients. Low-wage earners can get a credit, or even a refund if they don’t owe taxes. That saved the state $45 million.

A family of three may have experienced the equivalent of $300 tax increase, Davidson said, equal to roughly one week’s worth of its annual income.

“I would humbly suggest that we communicate with the general public that if everyone in the state was willing to contribute one week of their wages in additional taxes, we would solve pretty much every problem we raised today,” he said. “But instead we’re putting a very unfair burden on the lowest-income earners, and we’re not putting a burden on other folks. There is a question of fairness.” …

“One of our challenges is that almost everybody is concerned about their own survival,” Castro said. “Even a lot of people who have jobs are wondering how long they’re going to be able to keep their jobs. Somehow we have to broaden the dialogue. We’re always saying we’re a very generous country. Well, we need to be very generous not only when the economy doing well but when the economy is not so much.”

Attorneys Maura Sanders and Joshua Spielberg of Legal Services of New Jersey, which released its annual poverty benchmarks report last week, said acknowledging the wider impacts of the recession helps make the public more open to hearing their message and could help their recommendations gain traction with Republicans.

“The majority of New Jerseyans have suffered reductions in incomes, have suffered economically, have suffered the pain in this recession,” Sanders said. “It isn’t just those in poverty. It’s those in the middle class. It’s the majority of folks in New Jersey. And you have to acknowledge that everyone is suffering.”


Johnny 99 By Bruce Springsteen

Well they closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late that month
Ralph went out lookin’ for a job but he couldn’t find none
He came home too drunk from mixin’ Tanqueray and wine
He got a gun shot a night clerk now they call’m Johnny 99

Down in the part of town where when you hit a red light you don’t stop
Johnny’s wavin’ his gun around and threatenin’ to blow his top
When an off duty cop snuck up on him from behind
Out in front of the Club Tip Top they slapped the cuffs on Johnny 99

Well the city supplied a public defender but the judge was Mean John Brown
He came into the courtroom and stared young Johnny down
Well the evidence is clear gonna let the sentence son fit the crime
Prison for 98 and a year and we’ll call it even Johnny 99

A fistfight broke out in the courtroom they had to drag Johnny’s girl away
His mama stood up and shouted “Judge don’t take my boy this way”
Well son you got a statement you’d like to make
Before the bailiff comes to forever take you away

Now judge judge I had debts no honest man could pay
The bank was holdin’ my mortgage and they was takin’ my house away
Now I ain’t sayin’ that makes me an innocent man
But it was more ‘n all this that put that gun in my hand

Well your honor I do believe I’d be better off dead
And if you can take a man’s life for the thoughts that’s in his head
Then won’t you sit back in that chair and think it over judge one more time
And let ’em shave off my hair and put me on that execution line.

Same facts show different truths about being poor in N.C. by Bob Geary – Independent – March 30, 2011

The shortest war in American history, the bitter joke goes? It was the war on poverty. It ended almost as soon as President Lyndon Johnson declared it, abandoned as the nation came apart over segregation, civil rights and Vietnam.

In Chapel Hill on Monday, there was a Rashomon moment as progressives wrestled with how North Carolina has dealt with poverty in the years since LBJ. Some lauded the state’s “great consensus” in favor of good schools and moderate policies to help the poor while not—as in other old Confederacy states—losing conservative business leaders to the Republican Party. Others saw in the same set of facts an enduring, endemic poverty, especially in rural counties, that a compromised Democratic Party has barely budged.


Well, as Anita Brown-Graham said quietly, both stories are true. Poverty in North Carolina doesn’t look the same today as it did in the ’60s, said Brown-Graham, executive director of the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University. But while living conditions are better, the policies of the last half-century were never meant to erase inequality, she said. Indeed, the gaps that existed between rich and poor, and black and white, arguably are worse now given the way globalization is shredding even middle-class jobs. …

Former UNC president Bill Friday said that 1 million North Carolinians are poor—including one in four of our state’s children, and one in three black and Hispanic children. Which is why, Friday told the 350 of us who attended this “North Carolina Summit: Progress and Economic Justice in a Time of Crisis,” putting poverty back on the public agenda is the most important task progressives have before them.

Friday was a teenager in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, when all three mills in his hometown of Dallas, N.C., shut down. “No one had anything,” he said. But even then, the poor knew who they were—they were the ones on the outside looking in. Friday quoted a story:

“Poverty is like being on the edge of good things going on. You are never allowed to join in. You don’t ask even for events that are free. You stand in the shadows and accept, and that’s the worst poverty of all—accepting. For, you see, poverty is the color of a bruise. It’s a birthmark on your soul.”

The summit was hosted by UNC’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, a program started to fit the aspirations of presidential candidate John Edwards and now under the new management of director Gene Nichol, the dynamic former law school dean. (TWO OF HIS OP-EDS FOLLOW THIS ARTICLE.)

Not only is ending poverty not on the public agenda today, Nichol said, the eroding American dream has politicians pointing their fingers—and their budget knives—at the poor and the programs that help them. “These are not normal times, they are not simple times, they are not acceptable times,” Nichol said.

If the times were simple, a simple solution to poverty is at hand, spelled out by William (Sandy) Darity, a Duke University professor of economics and African-American studies. Darity said the federal government should establish a National Investment Employment Corps and guarantee work, at a living wage or above, to every adult who wants it.

There’s plenty of useful work to be done rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure—roads, bridges, railroads—and in the health care, child care and homeland security fields, Darity argued. Assuring that everyone has a job would cut welfare and prison costs dramatically while boosting local economies and state and federal tax revenues. …

Because the current climate is anything but receptive to an idea like Darity’s, though, the challenge for progressives is to blunt an unrelenting attack from the political right while mounting a movement powerful enough to turn the tide in favor of—actually, defining the “what” is part of the challenge. Is it economic justice? Racial equality? Gender equality? Ending poverty?

American history, said the Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, is replete with the ways that the rich have persuaded everyone else that what’s good for Wall Street is good for them too. Slavery, Jim Crow, anti-women, anti-union and pro-corporation laws add up, Barber said, to “a legacy of government-created poverty” that most Americans today accept as just the ways things have to be.

Unraveling that history and exposing it is part of the task, Barber said.  A related part, said Jarvis Hall, director of the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at N.C. Central University, is conveying a positive message of change to the vast electorate that came out for Barack Obama in 2008 but is back on the political sidelines watching in despair.

As the conferees debated how to mount such a movement, three points seemed crucial:

  1. First, tell good people stories. Narrative, not data, moves public opinion, said Michael Jones, a fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. Progresssives, Jones said, suffer from an “Enlightenment Age hangover,” convinced that if they just assemble a few more killer facts, people’s minds will change. But what changes the public mind, Jones said, is a well-told story, like Ronald Reagan’s fictional welfare queens. Progressives’ stories don’t have to be fiction, Jones said. But they do need a plot—like who’s killing the economy?— and some villains and heroes to reach the part of the brain that neuroscience tells us is where we store our basic identity.  Good stories, Jones added, will change the “face” of poverty that the right wing has embedded in the public consciousness of a shiftless person, usually black, who’s poor by choice. A consistent narrative about rural whites, working moms and displaced dads of every ethnicity “is the first thing that should happen,” he argued.
  2. Second, defend the public sector. Since LBJ, the prevailing narrative about government has been that it’s wasteful, inefficient and corrupt. Conference speakers described a wide array of government-funded programs, many run by nonprofit organizations, that are helping to lift the poor out of poverty—and that are under attack as right-wing politicians seek to defund not just the programs but the organizational infrastructure of anti-poverty efforts.
  3. Third, persuade Americans that we’re all in it together. In his powerful keynote, Barber said that since Roman times, when Jesus preached a gospel of helping the poor and was crucified for it, politicians have defended the status quo on the basis that if the poor were helped, most people would be worse off. The task today, Barber said, is to “expose the hypocrisy of the tax-cut crowd” and illustrate how policies that favor the rich hurt everybody else. “We refuse to see that we are all interrelated,” Barber thundered. “But we cannot live in isolation. If you ignore those at the bottom, eventually the whole enterprise will decay.”

Barber said that the NAACP and other organizations in the HK on J coalition will launch a bus tour of eastern North Carolina this spring to expose the conditions of poverty and put new faces on the poor. He invited supporters to ride with them and said details will be announced soon.

Part of Speech by Gene Nichol at the UNC Justice Center

North Carolinians have had a tougher go than most during the challenges and stresses of the great recession. Almost 17% of us live in poverty – about a quarter of our kids. Numbers are even worse for people of color. We’ve had higher losses of health coverage than all but a few states. In raw numbers, more of us are poor than ever before in our history – and higher percentages of us are impoverished than at any time in decades.

The median wage for workers is less, in real terms, today, than it was thirty years ago. During that same three decades, nationally, as wages have fallen for the average worker, the share of income captured by the top one percent has risen from 8% to 24%. Average folks get less. The top takes three times as much. We’re badly askew.

Against this backdrop, remarkably, stunningly really, our policymakers are readying to do two things – first, as you know, they are moving to significantly cut the state’s corporate income tax rate – which will, once again, overwhelmingly aid those at the top of the economic ladder. Then, with HB 93, they prepare to dramatically reduce the impact, benefit and effectiveness of a program that provides crucial support to low and very low income, working North Carolina families – the state version, our very modest Earned Income Tax Credit – a program that is seen, broadly, as one of the nation’s most promising tools for helping workers lift themselves out of poverty. …

We’ve had a change of politics of late. But this is still, I believe, the state of folks like Frank Graham and Bill Friday and Terry Sanford. Folks who believed, and acted on the belief, that we’re all in this together. Folks who helped move North Carolina from the bottom of the South – in just a few decades – to the top of it. And they did that by investing in its people – especially those at the bottom, the marginalized, those who have had the deck profoundly stacked against them. We didn’t make the progress we’ve made as a state in the past half century by merely governing for the already privileged. But when you raise the taxes of poor people to lower the rates of the wealthy, that’s exactly what you’re doing. And it’s unworthy of North Carolina. Unworthy of our history. Unhelpful to our future.

The great divide in household wealth BY GENE NICHOL

Recent international studies have shown that we (the USA) not only are the richest nation on Earth, but we also countenance significantly more poverty, and much more child poverty, than most other Western industrial democracies. We have the largest gaps between rich and poor. We make fewer efforts to lift the poorest out of economic distress and take fewer steps to ameliorate economic inequalities than most comparable nations. And while the top 1 percent of Americans claimed about 8 percent of our total national income in the 1970s, it now captures almost 25 percent. We are boldly askew.

Last week the UNC Poverty Center, in partnership with the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, also published a study that looks closer to home – one that deepens and augments our understanding of the effects of poverty on our lives. We explored disparity, particularly racial disparity, not in income, but in wealth.  Income studies, of course, are based on the dollars each household manages to bring home. Wealth, on the other hand, refers to the assets we accumulate – to produce additional income, to invest in future opportunities and to buttress against the unpredictable winds of economic challenge.


Nationally, racial wealth disparity has been shown to be deep and, if anything, even more intractable than income inequality. Our study showed, pointedly, that racial wealth disparity in North Carolina is a good deal worse than in the country at large. African-American households here possess only about 13 percent of the wealth held by white households. Net worth comparisons are, remarkably, even more bleak.

Black households have only about a third of the home equity enjoyed by whites. They secure only about a quarter of the pension values and a quarter of the savings of white North Carolinians. Many more black families are “unbanked.” Tragically, about half of all African-American households report less than $100 in personal savings.

Massive differentials exist across both income levels and stages of life. Even high-income black households have demonstrably less wealth than comparable white families. And, for example, black heads of household between the ages of 50 and 65, preparing for retirement, report at the median about $17,000 in assets. Similarly staged whites, on average, have $143,000. And single black women fare much, much worse than single black men.

These numbers, of course, are beyond demoralizing. They almost provide cause to give up hope. Almost. And Tar Heels, no doubt, disagree mightily about whether they constitute a moral outrage and, if so, what the most effective steps that could be taken to address them are.  For me, despite unyielding controversy, some things are clear.

  • I do not believe, for example, that Americans are less generous and less concerned about the plight of their fellows than the citizens of other nations.
  • I don’t believe our poor and marginalized members are less capable of taking advantage of proffered opportunity and challenge than those of other lands.
  • I don’t think that we are less able to fashion solutions to the complex and debilitating problems of poverty than our counterparts elsewhere.
  • Nor do I believe that we will either thrive as a people or live up to our defining national promise by further dividing into distant camps of haves and have-nots.

I’m confident that any vibrant and worthy sense of morality requires that we recognize our neighbors as brothers and sisters rather than strangers – removed from the fates we claim as our own.

The UNC Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity is a non-partisan, interdisciplinary institute designed to study, examine, document, and advocate for proposals, policies and services to mitigate poverty in North Carolina and the nation.  The Center has four goals:

  1. To address the pressing needs of those currently living at or below the poverty level in North Carolina
  2. To provide an interdisciplinary forum to examine innovative and practical ideas to move more men, women and children out of poverty
  3. To raise public awareness of issues related to work and poverty
  4. To train a new generation to combat the causes and effects of poverty and to improve the circumstances of working people

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