A Little History
“No piece of prose did more to make plain the atrocity of poverty in an age of affluence,” claimed Jill Lepore in her September, 2012 article in Smithsonian magazine. She was referring to a book review by Dwight MacDonald published in The New Yorker in 1963. According to Lepore, this book review inspired John F. Kennedy to attack poverty, and Johnson took over that war.
I was born in 1967, the summer of love, and I didn’t read MacDonald’s piece, titled “Our Invisible Poor,” until almost 50 years after it was published. Unfortunately the facts remain the same: the poor still suffer more sickness with less healthcare, and pay more taxes with less money. Unlike JFK’s war on poverty, I don’t know where exactly the idea for A Place to Stand came from, but I have a few ideas.
In 1990, I was moving to Canada for work. I asked the Canadian real-estate agent where the bad parts of town were. She looked confused. I said, “You know, the places with burnt out buildings, homeless people…" She laughed, "Oh, I forgot you’re American. We don’t have bad parts of town. In Canada everyone has a home." Now I was confused—how could that be? Perhaps that experience planted the seed. But it wasn’t until 1995 that the basic idea for A Place to Stand came to me.
From 1996-1998, my wife and I were teaching in Washington DC and many of our students lived in group homes, sub-standard housing, or were living on the streets. We got involved in the charter school movement and developed a plan for a community school with wrap around services: residence, food service, academic and vocational instruction. From 2005-2009 we lived and worked in Panama. While there we worked with marginalized populations. My wife coordinated literacy programs for indigenous children in rural areas. I founded a music camp for orphans. From 2009-2011 my wife worked as an in-home counselor. These experiences left us with the conviction that a lot of people could use A Place to Stand.
When you work on a problem, and read and write and talk about it enough, solutions often present themselves. Thus, many who have fought against poverty followed similar plans: from Jane Addams’ Hull House in the 1800s, to the community school movement, to recent efforts at providing wrap-around services for the homeless. These programs have typically met with success. In fact, recently there have been reports of the eradication of homelessness in certain populations in specific areas, such as veterans in Utah. But there are still millions suffering undernourishment—according to the FAO (2012), 2.5 million children die of it every year. Likewise, a UN (2005) report estimated there are 100 million homeless people every day and 1.6 billion living in sub-standard housing.
We have created A Place to Stand to transform urban slums from the very bottom up by offering food, shelter, health care and education to those who need it most. And as Angelo Sodano said, “The hungry can not wait” (as cited in Lewis, 1998, p. 501).
So, I’ll end this blog with MacDonald’s final words from his 1963 essay, “Our Invisible Poor”:
Until our poor can be proud to say “Civis Romanus sum!,’ until the act of justice that would make this possible has been performed by the three-quarters of Americans who are not poor—until then the shame of the Other America will continue.
FAO, WFP and IFAD. 2012. The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012. Economic growth is necessary but not sufficient to accelerate reduction of hungerand malnutrition. Rome, FAO.
Lepore, J. (2012). The unseen. Smithsonian, 43, 5.
Lewis, J. & D’Orso, M. (1998). Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.