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Does anyone care about the poor?

Our country's partisan divide affects the way we do business, receive education and health care, manage governing and interact with one another. The following article, written by public policy analysts Chickering and Turner, explores one of the many facets of this impact, examined from the "transpartisan" perspective.

Long ago – decades, in fact – the subject of the very poor played a prominent role in our intellectual and political debate. It was in the late 1960s and early '70s, when the government first started measuring economic poverty. The objective was to reduce the numbers who were poor.

Now, 50 years later, despite massive money spent, it is hard to see very much accomplished.

The same is true of other forms of social dysfunction – alcoholism, drug addiction, domestic violence and so on. Billions spent; little to show for it. Worse than that, it is hard to find evidence that anyone effectively cares. There is only the eerie sense that all anyone can agree on is that we keep spending the money, maintaining the theater of caring.

The subject here is "the most difficult population": people at the economic bottom in a society that values monetary achievement – the demoralized poor, people without hope. Forty years ago, books like "Tally's Corner" and "The Children of Sanchez" recorded their struggles.

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J.D. Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy" is perhaps the best example today. Very much worth the read. Among current political leaders only Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has raised the issue, but in a form that fails to effectively address it. As hard as he tries, his campaign about economic inequality and against the '"1 percent" seems more like artifacts of the old left's mainstream playbook than a serious attempt to bring new insights and new tools to bear on the issue.

Progressives want to increase taxes on the rich to slightly reduce inequality. Conservatives want to cut corporate taxes on the rich to slightly increase opportunity and growth. So, they fight. Neither has a program for – or any practical interest in – the actual poor. Or how addressing the poor addresses all our social assumptions.

These traditional left/right positions focus on objective issues, which touch people only as objective victims. The reality here, and in most of our pressing issues, concerns people as subjects. How might a serious debate arise on how to assist – in addition to more money to ease, if not eliminate, the pain of people – those who are at the economic bottom in a society that, above all, values financial achievement and success as ours does? How can we reimage the drive to "get ahead" and be "winners" so that it does not force others to be "losers" and live in shame?

Both left and right avoid serious answers on the subjective plight of the demoralized poor. Are there transpartisan approaches that deserve attention from people who really do care about the issue?

There is a better question. There are many "extraordinary" programs serving the most difficult populations that are producing powerful results. We have often written about them. What works is out there. A better question is: Why do people in power, both left and right, show little ability to learn from these existing programs?

In our lead article in The Transpartisan Review (Vol I, No. 2 p. 26) we mentioned five programs addressing the plight of the poor, working on different issues in all global regions. One key to the success of these programs is personal engagement among people empowered by shared ownership of public spaces.

These programs are Delancey Street Foundation, the widely celebrated drug rehabilitation program that began in San Francisco and now has satellite projects in other cities; UNICEF's Girls' Community Schools in Upper Egypt, a region many people regard as the epicenter of Islamic terrorism in Egypt; the All Stars Project in New York City, founded by Dr. Lenora Fulani, a "radical" transpartisan who twice ran for president of the United States and who is closely associated with Jacqueline Salit and her Committee for a Unified Independent Party, one of the leading politically independent organization in the country; and the Visitacion Valley Middle School (San Francisco; principal: James Dierke).

his path-breaking empowerment program (which included transcendental meditation for his inner-city students), Dierke won awards as the outstanding principal of a middle school in California one year and then won the award for the entire country the next year. He was also executive vice president of the National Association of School Administrators, showing how innovative and entrepreneurial action can occur inside government and quasi-governmental institutions. And finally, Educate Girls Globally, founded by Lawry Chickering, is promoting education for girls in the most difficult parts of rural India in government schools. EGG promotes empowerment of traditional people, including girls, and promotes cultural change both in traditional, passive communities and in government bureaucracies.

How can governments far from people help promote the personal, even intimate, contact and connections that are crucial to relieve the pain felt by those who live in the misery born from isolation? How can a political system obsessed by how money is spent shed light on this tragedy? When will our leaders start to learn from the experiences of others who have found newer means?

Across the country and around the world people, working together outside partisan divides, point the way.

This was originally published in The Transpartisan Review.

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