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Poverty: Today’s ‘great moral and spiritual issue’

Fri, Nov 2, 2012

Oral historian shows why economy works better when everyone is included

Kenan Heise

Retired Chicago Tribune reporter Kenan Heise has been writing about poverty since 1965 but individual people’s stories are still new and meaningful to him.

“Have I got stories for you!” Heise exclaimed after driving to the Uptown offices of StreetWise to discuss his newly published work, The Book of the Poor, (Marion Street Press).

Two miles south on Halsted Street, he had pulled over to answer his cell phone and had encountered eight men, “standing there doing nothing, very polite, very gentle, cleanly dressed, but poor.” They had thought he was going to rent a truck from a nearby business and they wanted to know if he needed workers.

Next, since Heise was early and had time to kill, he went to have his car washed. An older man asked if he wanted his car hand-dried.
“I said yes and I asked, ‘how much does it cost?”

“He said, ‘It costs $2 and I have to give $1 to the guy in the office.’ ”
“I asked, ‘How much do you make?’”

“He said, ‘$25 to $30 on a slow day, up to $50 on a good day.’ If you are working and making over $200 a week that’s about $10,000 a year in terrible weather and all kinds of conditions.” The man said he had been doing such work since he came up from Mississippi 50 years ago.

Finally, just before Heise walked into the building where StreetWise has its offices, a panhandler asked him for money.
“I gave him a dollar and he walked into the grocery store and spent it,” Heise said. “That’s as fast as money can possibly turn in our economy and that’s not what the wealthy are doing with their money.”

“Democracy is uniquely under duress now because the top one percent of our nation has gained control of so much of our wealth,” Heise writes in The Book of the Poor.

On the other hand, he also quotes former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich that “a free and healthy economy depends on the fact that those at or near the bottom of society have a meaningful role as consumers….We are not talking simply benevolence or even justice; but most emphatically, a much-needed functioning economy.”

Heise says he was eager to have the book in print before the November presidential election, “because the issue of poverty is what Tavis Smiley called the great moral and spiritual issue of our time.” And as he studied the issues before the candidates, “I felt that poverty was not being talked about.

“When Romney spoke at the Republican national convention in his acceptance speech, he got applause 68 times,” Heise continued. “But when he said ‘we as a united America must take care of one another and those in need,’ no two hands out of 6,000 people in that audience came together to applaud that comment. I could feel my soul when it happened.”

Republicans stop short of saying, “ ‘I don’t care about the poor,’ but large numbers of them seemingly do not,” Heise writes in The Book of the Poor.

“What has changed, I believe, is that two distortions in the thinking of many radical conservatives have caused them to skewer those who are poor. The first has been the bias of seeing many, if not most of those in need, as less human. The second is in not seeing them at all, a deceptive position they use to relieve themselves of any responsibility toward those with much less.”

Heise said he agreed with Peter Edelman that what we consider American democracy is endangered if we do not correct its disparities and the concentration of power at the top. Edelman, the director at the Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy, spoke Oct 10 on his new book, So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America at a forum sponsored by the National Public Housing Museum (see page 10-11).

“Absolutely. Democracy has to be moving forward by including more people and excluding less. The biggest group of people who are excluded are the really poor, especially those who are sent to prison instead of being given a chance to get a job and earn money.”
He has frequently given voice to people in poverty during his years as a journalist and author. He wrote They Speak for Themselves: Interviews with the Destitute of Chicago in 1965 as Jack Mabley’s assistant at the Chicago American.

“I sent a copy to Studs Terkel and his wife, Ida, got him to get me on the show. Two years later he came out with his first oral history book, Division Street America. I am very proud that he did it, but he never wrote about the poor.”

The Book of the Poor encompasses stories Heise did for the Chicago Tribune in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s as well as new contemporary reporting and research on both historic causes and contemporary solutions. He writes about 245,000 deaths attributable to low education in 2000; disconnected youth in Humboldt Park, ill-educated for today’s jobs; the rise of the prison population from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.3 million in 2009. He even notes that the Confederacy’s failure “to promote the general welfare” of wives and widows of soldiers led to its defeat; by war’s end, the number of men who had deserted the Rebel army to run their family farms surpassed the man in uniform.

“The ’60s were more about food than anything else,” he said. “Everybody talked about having no food on the table and what they substituted for food: ‘you take one onion and it makes up for a lot.’ In the ’70s I wrote The Death of Christmas. That’s about children. By then the [Lyndon Baines Johnson-era] War on Poverty had already had an impact. People were looking at their children and wanted to use Christmas as a promise that things would get better and they couldn’t.” The book led to the Neediest Chicago Children’s Christmas fund, which Heise founded when he was editor of the Tribune Action Line in 1969. The fund raised $75 million from 1969 to the 1980s.

“In the 80s [my writing] was a response to Reagan economics. It was how invisible poverty was even to the people who worked with the poor. I took the testimony of people who worked in city agencies with the poor, the impact of Reagan economics on them, but it was more about their jobs than the poor so I threw it out. [Instead] I interviewed 15 people in Uptown and let them just talk to me. It ran 1½ pages on the front of the [Chicago Tribune] Perspectives section. Then I got a column to go out and interview anybody I wanted, so I went to the county jail, women’s section.”

The women were mostly first offenders charged with thievery, to which they said they resorted after losing welfare, Medicaid, and training programs.

Heise said he got his start as a 5-year-old helping his family to sell flowers door to door during the Depression. He was doing “stoop work,” pulling weeds between green bean plants at 8, and he was a golf caddy for 10 years. He spent several years in a Franciscan monastery and got to know Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement.

His outlook is not entirely dour, however. Chicago has been central to his many books. They range from a reference book, Hands on Chicago; to a financial history; The Chicagoization of America 1893-1917, which covered contributions to the nation’s culture between the Columbian Exposition and World War I; The Journey of Silas P. Bigelow, about what the city would be like if it were still Native American; and Alphonse: A Play About Al Capone in His Own Words.

From 1982 to 1999, he was also the chief obituary writer at the Tribune, where he focused on work people did in their lives to make the world better.

As a child in 1939, Heise saw things getting better thanks to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal: the jobs program that improved forests and resulted in rural electrification, bridges, parks and local libraries, post offices and municipal buildings. They are a source of “generational pride” to him.

FDR understood the way to rebuild an economy, he writes. Heise quotes from FDR’s 1932 speech, “These unhappy times call for the building of plans…that build from the bottom up and not the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man…the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”

Working with the people at the bottom, FDR provided security by assuring numerous rights: the farmer’s to raise and sell his product at a rate to give his family a decent living; the businessman’s to trade free of unfair competition or monopolies at home and abroad; everyman’s right to a decent job, decent medical care and adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment.

This “Second Bill of Rights” was like a war memorial, Heise wrote. The first part was enacted in 1944 as the GI Bill that helped veterans attain an education and housing. Much of the remainder came about in 1965 through Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society. “The focus was not on WWII and the soldiers who served but on the people being left behind in not sharing in the nation’s abundance.” These reforms included the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor; Head Start for preschoolers of limited income; the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Heise disputes the conservatives’ mantra that the nation fought LBJ’s War on Poverty “and poverty won.” Instead, he writes that between 1965 and 1969, the number of Americans living below the poverty level dropped from 36 million to 24 million. Thanks to Medicare and Medicaid, the proportion of elderly Americans living in poverty fell from 35 percent in 1959 to 16 percent in 1971.
“In fact, the economy surged to a great extent precisely because of the War on Poverty,” he writes. “It was a successfully targeted stimulus that mirrored what the New Deal programs had done for the economy during the Depression. Poor people got government-sponsored benefits – training and jobs, that, in turn, created more jobs and a spiraling flow of cash benefits, money in people’s pockets while it also paid for essential services.”

Written by Suzanne Hanney,
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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