From the War on Poverty to the Fourth World

By Susie Devins (United States)

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Photo from Occupy Wall Street by David Shankbone

In 1968, in the middle of my second year of college, I got accepted to a War on Poverty program called VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), known today as Americorps. With two others I was sent to Covington, a northern Kentucky city in Appalachia.

We did a lot of knocking on doors, and in those days people answered; many even invited us in. Through the teen center we ran and through our efforts to get a school lunch program launched, we got to know many children and their families. Some had come north looking for work when coal mines closed. For the middle-class person that I was, this was an exciting and challenging education about my own country and its people. Many years later, with what I had learned from the Fourth World Movement, I could better interpret the images and words that struck me as a 20-year-old in Kentucky. One image was of a family with 14 children. I guess people didn’t know how to help them, so they kept giving them used clothes. One time I was out in the family’s back yard with the mother and saw a huge pile of clothes — wet, muddy, and rotting. I don’t remember if the mother said anything, but it occurred to me later that she felt she didn’t have the right to refuse other people’s charity.

Joseph Wresinski’s work on extreme poverty as a violation of human rights moved the analysis from a needs-based one to a rights and human assets-based one. His book The Very Poor, Living Proof of the Indivisibility of Human Rights reminds us that to live in dignity we need to be able to exercise all of the rights that should be accorded us simply because we are human beings.

Researchers at the Center for Social Policy at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, where ATD Fourth World is proud to have a partnership, make an important practical contribution to the issue of indivisibility. Their “Bridging the Gap” work explains clearly what happens when socio-economic safety nets do not exist or are removed before families gain enough stability. When this happens, families fall through the gaps and are seen as failures, when in fact it is the policies that have failed.

Like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the War on Poverty could never have been just a strategic battle with a specific withdrawal date. The issues are far more complex and deep-rooted than we realized. Today we know so much more than in the 1960’s. But do we know what it means to leave no one behind? Do we know what choices and decisions each one of us, as well as our elected officials, have to make to create a viable community for everyone? Joseph Wresinski wanted to get involved in the U.S. War on Poverty to learn from the many initiatives it put into motion. And he also believed strongly that if the United States could see, try to understand, and eradicate persistent poverty in this country, it would add to knowledge and change the approach elsewhere. For example, we would know that development in and of itself does not eliminate poverty. And that would change many things.

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