Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
Americans routinely hail their country as the greatest nation on earth, a land of boundless opportunity providing everyone the chance to fulfill their dreams of freedom, prosperity, and success. Reality, however, does not quite live up to this rhetoric. Over the past three decades, U.S. poverty rates have actually increased and by 2010 over 46 million people in this country, approximately 1 person in 7, could be considered poor. In flat contradiction to its self-image, the U.S. now ranks lowest among industrialized nations on many critical indicators of economic and social well-being.
According to a briefing from the Institute of Policy Studies, among all economically advanced countries, the U.S. has the highest rates of relative poverty and child poverty. It also has one of the largest margins of income inequality and the smallest number of social services provided to its citizens. Contrary to the creed of neoliberal economic theory, those countries in which the government devotes more funds to social services are consistently more successful in reducing poverty and inequality than those that adopt a “Wild West” version of corporate capitalism.
Politicians have treated poverty as if it were a taboo topic not to be spoken about in polite company. While long hours in Congress are devoted to debating how to avoid a fiscal cliff, barely a glance is given to those who have fallen off the poverty cliff and face a daily struggle just to survive. Talk about reducing the economic burden on the middle class and protecting small businesses is considered respectable, but acknowledging the existence of an underclass can raise shrieks about “class warfare,” as if it were the poor that are attacking the rich.
The tide, however, may be changing, and one celebrity figure who has been pushing hardest to turn the tide is talk show host Tavis Smiley. Himself the co-author (with Cornel West) of a book titled The Rich and the Rest of Us, last week, on January 17th, Smiley hosted a panel discussion at George Washington University on “A Future Without Poverty.” The panel was broadcast by C-SPAN, which maintains a video of the event in the C-SPAN video library. Though long—clocking in at 2.5 hours—the discussion is a must-watch for anyone concerned about economic and social justice in America.
Smiley brought together a group of thinkers who offered insights from a range of perspectives on such major problems as homelessness, hunger, education, our health care crisis, and our broken political system. Participating were economist Jeffrey Sachs; educator and author Jonathan Kozol; Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities; philosopher and theologian Cornel West; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United; policy expert John Graham; and Marcia Fudge, newly elected chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
While a major focus of the discussion was on the economy, the panelists drove the discussion to a deeper level by exploring profound questions about what we are as a nation, about the type of moral vision that should be guiding and inspiring us. Should government keep in the background and let the private sector run on its own dynamics, or should government play a regulatory role, checking the ambitions of corporate executives while protecting the vulnerable and ensuring everyone a fair deal? Should our core values be individualism and competition, or should they instead be collaboration and mutual concern? Should we settle for compromise and incremental change, or should we push to create a society radically committed to justice and love?
Newt Gingrich played the role of the “contrarian,” seeking to discredit the liberal programs of the 1960s. For this he was sharply criticized by Chilton and Sachs, and by the end of the evening his attitudes even seemed to be changing. John Graham also expressed conservative and pragmatic views, for instance, by extolling natural gas as a way to cut energy costs. But the other panelists argued for more progressive public policies.
Jeffrey Sachs contended that the solutions to poverty are clear but our politics have failed to implement them, with both parties in thrall to the corporations that finance their campaigns. In his view we need a third party to represent the rest of America—though he didn’t seem to realize that we have progressive third parties which the mainstream media systematically excludes from the spotlight. Jonathan Kozol argued that the only proven exit from destitution is giving poor inner-city children “a terrific, excellent, and exciting education,” funding it at a higher level than suburban schools. Mariana Chilton pointed out that many families in America don’t have enough money for food, with one quarter of our kids suffering from food insecurity. The food stamps program, she argued, has been one of the most successful answers to hunger, but it is now endangered by conservative proposals to cut social spending, a move which will throw many needy families under the bus. Rose Ann DeMoro advocates a solution in a “Robin Hood Tax,” a tax on Wall Street financial transactions that could bring in even hundreds of billions of dollars in revenues, enough to substantially support programs that help the poor.
This last suggestion seems to me the most pragmatic, since it can provide the funds needed to improve education, create new jobs, and revitalize our crumbling infrastructure. The main stumbling block, however, is that such a tax requires congressional approval, and our present representatives are unlikely to adopt any measures that might incur the wrath of their super-rich benefactors. Thus we find ourselves caught in the same vicious cycle that presently entraps us.
By far the most radical, passionate, and colorful of the panelists was Cornel West, who spoke as an heir to the Black prophetic tradition. When Smiley asked him what it means for Barack Obama to be sworn in for his second presidential term on Martin Luther King’s Bible, West almost exploded. I summarize his response, which can be seen here: “You don’t play with Martin Luther King and you don’t play with his people, people committed to peace and justice, especially with the Black tradition that produced a person like MLK…. You don’t use his prophetic fire as just a moment in a presidential pageantry without understanding the challenge he presented to all those in power, no matter what color they are. The righteous indignation of MLK becomes a moment in political calculation, and that makes my blood boil. King died because he wrestled with three crimes against humanity: Jim Crow, the lynching and stigmatizing of black people; carpet bombing in Vietnam; and poverty for people of all colors…. I say to myself, ‘MLK Jr., what would you say about the new Jim Crow, a prison industrial complex with 62% of people imprisoned for soft drugs, but not one Wall Street bank executive has gone to jail, not one wiretapper, not one torturer has gone to jail? What about the drones being sent over Pakistan, Somali, and Yemen? Those are war crimes just like war crimes in Vietnam. What would you say about the poverty in America now, beginning with the children, the elderly, the working folks, people of all colors—not just here, but around the world? Don’t hide and conceal his challenge, don’t tame King’s prophetic fire…. We won’t allow that tradition to be sanitized, deodorized, and sterilized. We want that subversive power to be heard.’ That’s what made me think when I heard he’s gonna put his hand on that Bible.”
It’s impossible in a blog post to do justice to the rich insights that the panelists offered, but such a discussion naturally raises questions about a proper Buddhist approach to the problem of poverty. Several Buddhist texts, stemming from an era when monarchy was the prevailing form of government, clearly assign responsibility for alleviating poverty to the ruler. For example, the Discourse to Kutadanta (Digha Nikaya no. 5) advises the king to give people work and distribute wealth to his subjects so they can start businesses to support their families. The Lion’s Roar on the Universal Monarch (Digha Nikaya no. 26) traces social decline to the refusal of the king to alleviate poverty. In our own time, when democratic models of government are dominant, it would seem that it falls to the executive and legislative body to take the initiative in helping the poor emerge from poverty.
Adopting Buddhist moral values would also lift concern for the poor above a narrowly nationalistic level. Since reflection on the essential identity of all people shows that they all share a fundamental aspiration for well-being and happiness, a polity inspired by Buddhist values would endorse a more extensive program of social transformation than one focused on a single nation. It would sponsor projects aimed at ameliorating poverty globally and not merely in one’s own country. When we consider that just 10% of the money used to bail out the Wall Street banks would have sufficed to eliminate world hunger, and another 10% could have expedited the transition from fossil fuels to clean and renewable energy systems, such an ideal does not seem excessively utopian.
Tavis Smiley has given the public an opportunity to lend their voices to the struggle against poverty. On change.org he has posted a letter to President Obama, urging him to begin his second term with a major policy address on reducing and eradicating poverty in America and to convene a White House Conference on eradicating poverty at the beginning of his new term. You too can sign the letter, and thereby lend your voice to ending poverty in the U.S. To sign the letter, go here: