In April 1988, I gave up most of my possessions and hit the road, not knowing where I would go or how long I would stay there. I had lived and worked in low-income neighborhoods in San Francisco for almost twenty years and I needed a break. My life had been devoted to building democratic, supportive communities dedicated to personal growth and social change.
I had run a neighborhood food cooperative that became a lively community center. I had lived in a low-income 40-room residential hotel, where I helped organize the tenants to manage the building, as a model for how the poor can gain more control over their lives. I had worked with mental patients, psychiatric inmates, and mental-health workers to oppose the violation of human rights in psychiatric institutions. I had been co-editor of an award-winning neighborhood newspaper that advocated for the residents of a poor, multi-cultural district in San Francisco. I had joined with environmentalists and others to promote public transit. I had initiated the formation of a neighborhood self-help center to develop natural human support as an alternative to traditional mental-health services. I had founded a cultural center to give poor artists a place to exhibit their work. In all of these projects, my purpose was to facilitate people coming together to meet specific needs and to foster community, mutual support, and political action.
As a student in the 1960s at the University of California and the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, I had experienced a profound sense of community in the civil rights and anti-war movements. Those experiences led me to dedicate my life to organizing communities of people committed to democratic social change. In 1969, I moved to San Francisco to engage in this work.
Until 1988, my focus was on short-term goals that were local and "winnable": preventing the demolition of low-income housing; stopping shock treatment in city mental hospitals; gaining a management contract for a tenants' association; persuading the city to fund a neighborhood self-help center.
Through local organizing efforts such as these, grassroots organizers across the country have steadily built "people power." While developing a network of organizations dealing with local issues, most of us hoped that these organizations might eventually unite to implement changes in national policies. But in April 1988, I began to sense the need for a new strategy. Down deep, I felt stuck; so I took my open-ended sabbatical.
Soon after leaving San Francisco, I ended up on the north coast of the Dominican Republic sleeping in a thatch hut with a dirt-poor family of eleven who lived in a two-bedroom house with no indoor plumbing. Many other families lived within earshot. Visiting with them and their neighbors proved to be an important learning experience for me. Compared to poor people in the ghettos of the United States, these rural Dominicans were remarkably peaceful. I seldom heard children cry or fight, for example, or adults argue. Living conditions were primitive and crowded. The electricity was often off throughout the region. The food was bare and simple and surprisingly expensive. But compared to my life in the United States, there was less frustration, anger, hostility, and virtually no violence.
It struck me that poverty itself is not the problem. People can be poor and still live peacefully. But blatant inequality -poverty in the face of abundance - is intolerable. If everyone lives under similar conditions, sleeping several people to a room or not having electricity can be accepted. But when one is constantly bombarded with images of wealth, it is another matter. When Dominican television becomes widespread in the country-side and the middle class becomes conspicuous, social tensions will probably increase there as they have in the United States.
These reflections led me to concentrate on the need for major change in national economic policy in the United States. In neighborhoods throughout the country, human-service agencies are swamped by human misery. One can help a few people get a handle on their lives, only to be confronted with more people at the front door asking for assistance. The sense of swimming upstream is overwhelming.
Most of this misery is due to policies established by the federal government. Poverty is a national problem that cries out for a national solution. I decided that I could no longer focus primarily on local issues and went to Washington, D.C. to see what national organizations based in the nation's capital were doing to address these issues on the national level.
After getting a part-time job, I visited the headquarters of the United Methodist Church, where I volunteered my services to their Director of Social and Economic Justice, Dr. George Ogle. He asked me to investigate "solutions to poverty" This research and his positive response to my report led me to look further into what it would take to eliminate poverty in America. Much to my surprise, I could find no literature that presented a concrete program for abolishing poverty in the United States. Not even President Johnson's War on Poverty ever had a specific plan for achieving its announced goal, the end of poverty in this country.
So I decided to try to do what no one had done: define a specific, comprehensive program that would basically eliminate poverty in America. The responses to my preliminary results were heartening. Christian Social Action, a magazine of the United Methodist Church, published an article presenting my initial conclusions. My minister in Washington, Rev. William A. Holmes, quoted at length from this article during a sermon. And a seminar I presented at the Institute for Policy Studies, convened by Chester Hartman, an Institute fellow, was well received.
After a year in Washington, I returned to San Francisco to discuss my research with old friends, neighbors, and colleagues and to explore with them how to pursue it further. I began meeting weekly with Keith Grier and Darryl Smith, fellow residents of the residential hotel where I had lived. Eventually we decided to issue a broad, open invitation to everyone who lived or worked in our neighborhood, the Tenderloin, to participate in a "Solutions to Poverty Workshop" to draft guidelines for national antipoverty legislation. (The results of this project are presented in Chapter Twelve.) The workshop met for a year and then invited San Franciscans to a citywide Antipoverty Congress to debate and vote on the ten-point program it developed. Some 100 participants in the Congress gave our 10-point program overwhelming support.
Shortly afterwards, a number of participants in the Congress decided to form a new advocacy organization, now called the Campaign to Abolish Poverty, which has gathered a broad range of endorsements for the program adopted by the Congress, now called the National Program to Abolish Poverty. Many elected officials, community leaders and advocacy organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area and other regions of the country have endorsed this program, and in mid-1993, Congressman Ron Dellums and several other congresspersons introduced legislation based on the linchpin of this 10-point program: the call to guarantee the human right to living-wage employment.
Economic Security For All is based on the results of this open, democratic, community-based planning process. Without the contribution of the many individuals who participated in this effort, this book could never have been written.
I know poverty from many angles. Born in 1944 on a small farm outside Little Rock, Arkansas, my first school had no indoor toilet for boys. In 1951, my family moved to the edge of an African-American ghetto in Dallas, Texas, where my father managed a small movie theater. By the time I graduated from high school in 1962, my parents had managed to buy a small brick house, but our standard of living was still quite low. Our family never took vacations or ate at restaurants.
My father grew up as a sharecropper working from sunrise to sunset. As an adult, he continued to work long hours, partly to guard against the threat of another Great Depression. After I left home, he temporarily became a successful part-owner of a concession-supply business, but was forced out when the principal owner died. He now scrapes by on Social Security.
My mother sacrificed her love of painting to become a mother and housewife. When the marriage turned sour, she was unable to divorce my father, due largely to the fear of poverty associated with being a single mother in the 1950s.
I worked my way through college, with government loans and some help from my parents. Since leaving school, I have mostly lived and worked with low-income people. By choice, my income, largely from small non-profit corporations, has usually been on the edge of poverty. While writing this book, I have sustained myself by working part-time as a cab driver.
Driving a taxi has enabled me for the first time to earn a steady non-poverty income and experience some financial security. The difference surprised me. Before, I never knew how much economic insecurity bothered me. The religious may affirm "voluntary poverty." But I've had all of it I want. I prefer peace and quiet in a neighborhood free of hookers shouting and neighbors arguing at three in the morning. I prefer to be able to go to a concert when I want, subscribe to cable TV, and take vacations. I prefer a certain degree of comfort and security, partly because it enables me to do my work more effectively.
Now that I have discovered in my own life the advantages of economic security, I believe even more strongly that everyone deserves the same - that a minimum of economic security should be guaranteed as a right of citizenship. This personal experience has heightened my motivation to write this book.
I have studied poverty my entire adult life. For the last several years, my research has been intensive. But the more I study the issue, the more I believe that expertise is not the issue. The experts have been wrong on many, if not most, of the major issues confronting the modern world - and they are wrong on this one as well. The experts say that ending poverty in America is not possible. Common sense declares otherwise. There is no good reason not to end poverty in America, and there is no task that is more urgent. If we had economic security for all in this country, Americans would more likely be more cooperative with one another, more respectful of the environment, and more supportive of the efforts of other nations to become self-sustaining and free from poverty themselves.
All issues are inter-connected and each of us must focus on our own calling. Countless issues cry out for our attention. Not knowing where to begin can lead to paralysis. This book is based on the intuition that, at the least, our work needs to include building support for the demand that the federal government guarantee economic security for all. By establishing this principle as a universal human right, we can pave the way to a new society.