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War on poverty - what war?

by Matt Hill
January 24, 2014
For my millennial generation, we have never really known a war on poverty. I have heard snippets in various progressive history circles of this alleged “War on Poverty” during the LBJ years, but always thought of it more as a rhetorical flourish on various income assistance programs in the 1960’s. Today, the public discourse is mainly concerned with how poor people deserve their lots in life, and how we can get the government out of the business of trying to help poor people, since the private sector and free market can do it so much better.
In the words of our country’s favorite TV psychologist: How is that working out for ya?
On ensuring that everyone has the human right to affordable, fair, accessible, and habitable housing, the statistics are dim and growing dimmer. 4,000 homeless on the streets of Baltimore City, 40,000 vacant houses, and over 50% of the city’s renters paying more than a third of their incomes in rent.  Back in 2002, I was involved in housing rights work at the Homeless Persons Representation Project, which was what inspired me to go to law school.  At that time, the wait to get a Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8) in Baltimore County was one or two years, and the County had a temporary voucher bridge program that would help folks get by for those 2 years.  Today, the wait time for a voucher is over 8 years in the County and over 15 years in the City (where the list is actually closed to new applicants). While food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid and SSI have significantly ameliorated poverty, we must recognize that we have made little progress beyond those important programs.
The most disturbing poverty today, however, is a poverty of imagination and political will. How do we re-imagine ways in which the city, county and state can be structured to ensure that everyone has the right to affordable, accessible, habitable housing?  How do we re-envision the political will to get there?  How do we partner legal advocacy with grassroots organizing to empower people living in poverty to lead the charge?  How do we help people in power see that people living in poverty have families, goals and hopes just as they do, only with less money?
At the PJC’s Human Right to Housing project, we have many more questions than answers, but that does not stop us from taking a first step and defending in court tenants who participate in the Right to Housing Alliance, envisioning a new role for public participation and control of housing development with the United Workers, and advocating in the Maryland General Assembly to ensure that no one is denied housing solely because he or she uses a voucher to pay the rent.
As Thomas Merton would say, these are but fingers pointing to the moon and we should never lose sight of the moon. And so we keep asking questions and taking small steps, while keeping our eye fixed on the realization of basic human rights.
We want to hear from you! You can be a part of this dialogue. Your thoughts, reactions, and questions will greatly enrich our conversation. Email them to Jiyoon at kimj@publicjustice.org with the subject line “Let's talk about this.”   You can also follow this conversation on Facebook or tweet @Publjusticecntr with your responses using the national hashtag #talkpoverty.

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