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This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.....Our chief weapons in a more pinpointed attack will be better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities to help more Americans, especially young Americans, escape from squalor and misery and unemployment rolls where other citizens help to carry them. Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.
-- President Lyndon B. Johnson, Jan. 8, 1964

Most pop music is, and will always be, about the eternal themes of love and death and the pursuit of happiness, but if you listen harder you can also hear the political and social background noise of a generation. Like when I came of age in the so-called "Me Generation" of the late 1970s, amid the nihilistic twin peaks of disco and punk rock. Or 1967's Summer of Love, ushered in by Sgt. Pepper, "A Whiter Shade of Pale," and "San Francisco." or Madonna hailing the Reagan years with "Material Girl."

In the mid-1960s -- at roughly the same moment that LBJ delivered his famous War on Poverty speech -- there were a lot of songs about poor people

It's striking today when you tune into an oldies station and one of these drifts across the air-time continuum. Plaintive pop songs about issues of money and class, often told through the prism of a boy from the wrong side of the tracks and a girl from a mansion high on a hill (rarely the other way around, interestingly). If you're a music buff, it's easy to start rattling them off.

Dawn, go away I'm no good for you...Just think what the future would be with a poor boy like me. That rich guy you been seein' must have put you down. So welcome back, baby, to the poor side of town. I love her, she loves me, but I don't fit in her society. Lord have mercy on the boy from down in the boondocks. And his mama cries.  Cause if there's one thing that she don't need, it's another hungry mouth to feed -- in the ghetto.

"Down in the Boondocks," written by the great and recently departed Joe South, sung by Billy Joe Royal, and released in 1965, arguably marked the zenith of the genre of poor-people songs. Here's some more of the lyric:

One fine day I'll find the way to move from this old shack
I'll hold my head up like a king and I never never will look back
Until that morning I'll work and slave
And I'll save ev'ry dime
But tonight she'll have to steal away
To see me one more time
Songs like these would not have been popular in the 1960s but for one thing. People cared. They wanted the boy from the wrong side of the tracks to get the woman of his dreams, and they ached that the girl from the poor side of town could not so easily escape the cruel fate of her birth. The context is important. Most of America was prosperous and optimistic in the decades after World War II, -- and so it truly bothered many middle-class people that so many millions of citizens were left behind. And politicians picked up on this.

If you care about politics and the American conversation, I'd urge you to read a riveting book that came out a couple of years ago called The Last Campaign, about the short and tragically fated presidential bid of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. What's most striking is how eliminating poverty wasn't a throwaway line on the stump, but the cornerstone, the moral underpinning of RFK's campaign. It meant so much to him that Kennedy spent several critical days of the campaign on an Indian reservation in South Dakota -- a state that did not have a major primary -- because he just felt he needed to go there.

Said Bobby Kennedy: "If we believe that we, as Americans, are bound together by a common concern for each other, then an urgent national priority is upon us.  We must begin to end the disgrace of this other America."

Three months later, RFK was dead and when Elvis released "In the Ghetto" in 1969, the song's sentiments -- and Kennedy's ideal of our "common concern" for the poor -- already felt like quaint relics of another time. Today, a half-century later,  when "Dawn" or "The Poor Side of Town" come over the radio, it feels as distant as that music that NASA sends into faraway space for alien civilizations.

I don't need to recap the current state of affairs, when an American presidential election can take place and the incumbent can ignore poverty while his challenger lashes out at the poor as detestable victims "who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it,." Nor am I going to launch into a long discussion of how we got here, although you probably know that the War on Poverty foundered on our long national wound of racial strife and on the end of the Industrial Revolution, turning middle class wealth and altruism into scarcity and competition. They are reasons, but they are not excuses.

We are so accustomed in the 21st Century to ignoring the problems  of America's poor that when we see pictures or read a journalistic account of life in the deepest pockets of the Rust Belt, in places like western Pennsylvania or eastern Ohio, it can be shocking. There was such a piece in the Washington Post this weekend, the story of a young girl's desperate struggle to escape poverty, that echoed the lyrics of Joe South:

Tabi heard stories about the olden days. She came from welders and ceramic production workers. But, to Tabi, the sprawling Shenango China factory where her grandfather and great-grandfather worked was just a boarded-up place on the way to Wal-Mart.

Her New Castle was the one that existed now: white, working class, with poverty that had deepened into the second and third generations. Nearly three-fourths of the students in Tabi’s school qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, and one-third of New Castle families with children younger than 18 had incomes beneath the poverty level.

During the 2012 election, the campaigns of President Obama and Mitt Romney visited Pennsylvania a combined 38 times. With Ohio next door, the candidates and their wives barnstormed the region like few other places, focused almost entirely on the economy and strengthening the middle class. After the election, New Castle was still a hard town to be young and poor in.

Just seeing the story of Tabi Ruozzo getting so much space in the newspaper is a tiny glimmer of hope, that maybe we can wake up from more than our decades of national slumber. But before we even argue about what's the best way to tackle poverty, we need to get back to that simple place where Bobby Kennedy was. He simply saw America's poor as a problem to be solved, not as a class of people to be blamed, and so he didn't worry so much about how you got there, whether it was government programs or free markets or something in between. We have such a long way to go, but we really just need to land back on that first step.

America needs to learn all over again how to have mercy on a boy from down in the boondocks.

Originally posted to attytood on Wed Dec 12, 2012 at 12:25 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I'm glad that the story you (14+ / 0-)

    linked to has an apparently happy ending. But it disturbs me more and more that for Miss Ruozzo and so many other young people in areas lacking economic opportunity, military service seems to be the only way out of poverty. Are we becoming like Imperial Rome, where the underclass must buy full citizenship with years of soldiering for the Empire?

    The responsibility of national defense should fall on all social classes, not just those made desperate enough by dire economic straits. More and more I begin to believe that if we are to maintain a standing army as a nominal democracy, there must be a draft, so that the burden is equitably shared.

    Visit Lacking All Conviction, your patch of grey on those too-sunny days.

    by eataTREE on Wed Dec 12, 2012 at 12:49:05 PM PST

    •  Hear, hear! n/t (9+ / 0-)

      Join us on the Black Kos front porch to review news and views written from a black pov—everyone is welcome.

      by DaNang65 on Wed Dec 12, 2012 at 06:05:41 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  But not a draft with loopholes for the rich (9+ / 0-)

        During the Vietnam War, the rich like "W" got to enlist in "Champagne" units which would train them to fly planes that were not going to be used in combat.

        DaNang65, you and I know, but maybe others don't, that "W" scored 25 out of 100 on his pilot aptitude test, which was the absolute lowest possible score to get into the Air Force Reserves at that time. And then there is the fact that over 300 men had scored higher and earlier on the test than he did, but that didn't matter, little "W" got his slot in a safe unit where he would not have to go into combat, and more to point, wouldn't even have to show up if he was too drunk or high to do so.

        Eradicate magical thinking

        by Zinman on Wed Dec 12, 2012 at 10:31:30 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  And don't forget his plausible deniability (7+ / 0-)

          IIRC, he has always said he was home from Yale for Christmas 1967 and happened to hear there were spaces available in the ANG. No indication whatsoever that he knew those spaces weren't open to just anybody, or that he was benefiting from his father's name, money and connections. With most guys of his ideological stripe and (lack of) character, I'd call bulls**t...but with Bush, ignorance is always a real possibility. I find it entirely possible that he had no idea how many strings were pulled for him.

          We do, however, know that he was aware he'd never be sent to Vietnam. From a 1990 interview: "I was not prepared to shoot my eardrum out with a shotgun in order to get a deferment, nor was I willing to go to Canada. So I chose to better myself by learning how to fly airplanes." In other words, deserting his country and self-mutilation were deemed too extreme, but he did at least consider them. Actually going to Vietnam? Never even on the table!

          Certaines personnes disent qu'il y a une femme à blâmer, Mais je sais que c'est ma faute sacrément.

          by RamblinDave on Wed Dec 12, 2012 at 10:56:34 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

    •  100% correct (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Lujane, ladybug53

      A standing army is like a standing member. It's an excellent assurance of domestic tranquility, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure. Elbridge Gerry - Constitutional Convention (1787)

      by No Exit on Thu Dec 13, 2012 at 06:04:11 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Wonderful, thoughtful diary, with interesting (10+ / 0-)

    perspective from the RFK campaign. Excellent. Thank you!

    It's so important to keep bringing poverty into focus and putting a spot light on it.

    "extreme concentration of income is incompatible with real democracy.... the truth is that the whole nature of our society is at stake." Paul Krugman

    by Gorette on Wed Dec 12, 2012 at 06:24:08 PM PST

  •  Here's some folks from the '60s.... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    wbr, Blue Bell Bookworm, Lujane, ladybug53

    Hands Off Social Security Flash Mob in San Francisco on Dec. 7, 2012.

    "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends" -Martin Luther King Jr

    by blue denim on Wed Dec 12, 2012 at 06:55:35 PM PST

  •  I think we are at the birth of another movement (10+ / 0-)

    to bring some kind of economic fairness to the poor and middle class.  It will take decades but the majority finally seem to be awaking up to the fact that they've been lied to, cheated and stolen from in the last 30 years and things are a lot worse for them as they work harder and harder.  At least I hope so.  The wealthy never have empathy.  The rest of us have to take our worth and rights back.

    •  I hope your right. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RamblinDave, ladybug53

      There are signs of it, but things are moving soooo slowly...

      A standing army is like a standing member. It's an excellent assurance of domestic tranquility, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure. Elbridge Gerry - Constitutional Convention (1787)

      by No Exit on Thu Dec 13, 2012 at 06:07:09 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I think you missed the mark on one song (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Calamity Jean

    Great diary, but if I were you, I would have left "Dawn Go Away" out. If you listen to the lyrics, old Frankie is not only suffering from something of a persecution complex, he's also playing right into the hands of the then-nascent, now-dominant Republican mantra of f**k the poor. He's pushing his girl away even though she loves him, not because she has any problem with his being poor (she doesn't, apparently) but because he feels he's not good enough for her because he's poor. He's also encouraging her to marry a rich guy she doesn't love, thus breaking two hearts and also creating an unhappy marriage. Would the Republicans have a problem with any of that? Aside from the fact that Dawn might one day want a divorce, no. There's nothing they love half so much as a poor boy who knows his place! Also, consider the line "Girl we can't change the places where we were born." In 1963, that had some awfully ugly connotations, and he's tacitly endorsing them here even at the cost of his own happiness.

    Now, the Four Seasons' next big hit after that, "Rag Doll," that would be suitable for inclusion here, as it makes the exact opposite case: she's poor, and his parents disapprove of her because of that, but he doesn't care. Good for him, and for her, and for society!

    Certaines personnes disent qu'il y a une femme à blâmer, Mais je sais que c'est ma faute sacrément.

    by RamblinDave on Wed Dec 12, 2012 at 10:39:03 PM PST

  •  Don't forget Michael Harrington (5+ / 0-)

    Just think how amazing this wikipedia excerpt is in retrospect:

    Harrington served as the first editor of New America, the official weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation, initiated during October 1960.

    During this period Harrington wrote The Other America: Poverty in the United States, a book that had an effect on President Kennedy's administration, and on President Lyndon B. Johnson's subsequent so-called War on Poverty. Harrington became a widely read intellectual and political writer. He would frequently debate noted conservatives but would also argue with younger "New Left" radicals. He was present at the 1962 SDS conference that resulted in the creation of the Port Huron Statement, concerning which he argued that the final draft was insufficiently anti-Communist. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. referred to Harrington as the "only responsible radical" in America. His relative fame caused him to be added to the master list of Nixon political opponents.

    Harrington's book really was a big deal - much bigger than this excerpt indicates. I remember watching on a number of occasions network TV news stories on poverty in Appalachia, and eventually there was a high level tour (RFK IIRC) to highlight the problems and the need for action. That happened because of Harrington - no other reason. He was a Socialist. Nobody cared that he was - not even two Presidents of the United States, who listened to what he had to say and formulated policy to address the problems he identified.

    Around the same time, Ed Murrow/CBS broadcast the Harvest of Shame, about the treatment of migrant workers picking crops in the US. They intentionally aired it just after Thanksgiving as a connection to the feast recently on people's tables, and the conditions under which that was accomplished.

    Not to forget that there was a civil rights movement going on at the same time.

    I expect people under 30 or 40 are trying to puzzle out what country or alternate universe this all took place in.

    Stay off my fucking lawn as you try to figure that out.

    In Soviet Russia, you rob bank. In America, bank robs you.

    by badger on Wed Dec 12, 2012 at 10:45:25 PM PST

  •  Thank You so much for writing this. (4+ / 0-)

    Not just because it was well written and enjoyable to read.

    But also because I think more than half at my kid's school qualify for lunch, and everyday I see a young mom walking over a mile with her 4+5 year old to bring them to school. (We give them a ride whenever we see them)

    We are much luckier than our neighbors, and it's a very difficult time of year for them.

    How big is your personal carbon footprint?

    by ban nock on Thu Dec 13, 2012 at 05:58:51 AM PST

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