In an effort to recognize the growing problem of poverty in the United States, University of California, Santa Barbara organized a symposium on Friday, Jan. 31, where esteemed figures of academia and activism discussed topics varying from community action, social policy, and workplace justice.
The event was organized by Alice O’Connor, professor of history at UCSB, and was inspired by the 50th anniversary of former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s state of the union address in which he declared America’s first war on poverty. This address would eventually be the launching-point of Johnson’s “Great Society” legislation; social policies enacted under the Johnson administration would serve as the backbone of all contemporary social policy.
President Barack Obama’s state of the union address revisited this notion of combating economic inequality and poverty.
“The cold hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by, let alone get ahead, and too many still aren’t working at all,” Obama said in his speech.
Legislation put forward during the Johnson years were, and are still, controversial.
“This democracy would put poor people into direct conflict with the national power structure,” said Annelise Orleck, professor of history at Dartmouth College.
Orleck focused the majority of her discussion on the 1971 storming of the Caesar’s Palace casino in Las Vegas, Nev. This protest was led by Ruby Duncan in response to Nevada’s cutting of welfare programs earlier that year. Out of this turmoil, Duncan would form the Operation Life organization to provide all the survival necessities: food, shelter, health-care, for the impoverished families of the Clark County, Nev., area.
“What if poor mothers ran the world? It would be a better place,” said Orleck in conclusion to her discussion.
Pete White, founder and co-director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN) and lifetime resident of South Central Los Angeles, noted the tremendous irony of the close proximity of wealth and poverty in Los Angeles.
“The most-concentrated area of poverty is limited to a 50-block area surrounded by high-rise businesses on the west and government buildings on the east,” White said.
On lobbying the state and national government for social policy expansion, White claimed that LACAN had aided in passing numerous policies but many had been retracted or defunded soon afterward before the “spoils” had a chance to reach the people. White continued by articulating the dire need to monitor these newly-enacted policies over the “long haul” to see which policies provided the best results and which could be defunded.
Since the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, a variety of legal services, social policies, and entitlement programs have been cut or defunded completely as a means of balancing the national budget. Even under President Obama’s administration, federal funding for these programs has become a minute minority and state funding in California has become the primary source of funds.
In most recent years, a new category in welfare-recipients has developed: “the working poor,” people who are partially employed but whose income does not equate to the average standard of living.
The largest challenge facing the poor is the fact that they don’t have proper representation in government, nor do they have appropriate council when they face workplace injustice. One organization aiding in this legal assistance is California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. (CRLA), which mainly assists individuals involved in California’s agricultural industry.
In 2006 CRLA sued California’s dairy industry winning over $27 million in benefits for unpaid wages, overtime, and penalties.
“If you continue to push the envelope, you will be pursued by the federal government; we are one of the most audited organizations in the U.S.,” said José Padilla, executive director of CLRA. “But the idea that poor people can go [to the government] and lobby and have their voice heard is integrated into [CLRA’s] philosophy and makes it worth it.”