Monday, July 4, 2011

Toward an Honest Conversation About Poverty, Race

I just watched Harvard law professor, Randall Kennedy (pictured right,) deliver a speech excoriating America for not doing enough for its poor and being especially unfair to people of color.

That moved me to write this letter to him. I thought you might enjoy reading the tough questions I asked him:

Dear Randall,

It was my privilege to watch your recent National Press Club/C-Span speech on America's treatment of poor people and of people of color. You made the case with rigor and emotional restraint, which I believe is key to being heard.

Your talk moved me to run to my computer to invite you on my show to have a conversation with me about poverty and race.

I should let you know that I am not an Ehrenreich/Alter leftist yet I believe your excellently articulated position deserves greater attention and I know that my NPR-San Francisco listenership would be well served by a respectful conversation in which I raise questions about it, for example:
  • Metaevaluations of efforts to address poverty, from EarlyStart to HeadStart, from job training to job retraining, have--other than some pilot studies the results of which have proven to be unreplicable--been failures, certainly yielding extremely poor value for the literally trillions of taxpayer dollars spent since the War on Poverty began when you and I were young.
Some empiricism and much logic suggest that such redistributive "justice," has dispositively outweighing negative side effects. For example, welfare payments to able-bodied people (cash, housing, food stamps, MediCal,etc) encourages the working poor to not work because, to earn a similar amount of money,they'd have to earn roughly $50,000 a year in after-tax dollars, which their skills/work ethics etc will not come close to commanding. Such payments--just as when rich people give trust funds to their children--discourage people from wanting to be productive. And mid-to-upper-income people, who are working 40-80 hours a week in societally productive activities, grow more resentful of the poor upon seeing that many of the poor (including prisoners) receive better health care than many middle-class people get and that many welfare recipients do live in decent-to-nice housing (Have you seen low-income housing developments lately?--they look like the condos that middle-class people must spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on) with the mice you mentioned being the result not of the housing but of residents' leaving food wastes out and about, urinating in a doorway when annoyed at a neighbor, etc. I have been in many low-income residences and I was, indeed, often welcomed by the smell of urine.
  • You said that anyone who has spent significant time with the poor would realize that much of their situation is beyond their control. I have spent more time with the poor than you might imagine. I was born in and spent more than five years living in a tenement in the Bronx. I left a prestigious biomedical research position at the Rockefeller University when, in 1970, swept up by civil rights fervor, I became a drug counselor and teacher in inner-city New York City and Richmond, CA (heavily Black and Latino) schools, visited my students' families in their home many times, and had intimate conversations with their parents, grandparents, or aunts with whom they lived. While indeed, much of people's poverty lies beyond their control and your position deserves broader exposure (although the likes of Alter and Ehrenreich certainly got much more positive press attention than do conservative views), I believe that a more full-dimensioned exploration of how to address poverty as we move forward, requires addressing the aforementioned and other controversial questions.
Attorney General Holder calls us a nation of cowards about race. Yet, since that indictment was issued, I have not heard a truly full-dimensioned, brave public conversation about these most difficult-to-discuss issues. I invite you to come onto my show to have such a conversation with me. Especially in these difficult economic times, a truly full-dimensioned conversation about poverty and, yes, about race, which considers a wide range of intelligent, benevolently derived ideas, may be one of the most important civic actions we could undertake.

The first available slots on my show are 8/21, 8/28, 9/4, 9/11, and 9/18 all at 2 pm eastern time. Of course, we can do it by phone. Alternatively, if you plan to be in the San Francisco Bay Area at any point in the coming months, we should do the interview when you're in town.

What do you think?

Marty Nemko, producer, host, Work with Marty Nemko, KALW-FM (NPR-San Francisco)

UPDATE: He will appear on my show on Aug 21 at 11 am Pacific time. The show will be archived on the npr site for a week and permanently on


Marlo said...

Is your radio show broadcast online as well? I would like to listen.

For what it's worth, I commend anyone willing to engage in "full dimensioned" conversations on poverty and race. Very few people can do it. The call for honesty is often perceived, by many, to be a taunting invitation to no holds barred matches of racial disparagement. Blacks have all but established themselves as a permanent underclass in the U.S. and deservedly so. That's never going to change.

I suppose now the central question is: how does America sustain itself as an intreasingly diverse society without igniting what Malcom X referred to as a racial powder keg?

Marty Nemko said...

My goal will be for our conversation to be as honest as will ultimately be helpful. Yes, it's a fine line I will try to tread.

Yes, my show is archived for a week after the show on the National Public Radio website ( and permanently on my site ( As I wrote, I'll let you know when Randall Kennedy confirms the date of his appearance.

Anonymous said...

I just don't get it - how could one be born in the US - with all the perks from day one (language, citizenship, health care, free libraries, social programs of an almost a socialist state) and still be poor and underprivileged?

First generation immigrants (including myself) had to fight tooth and claw - to get here, stay here, naturalize here. Learn the language, get marketable skills, be better than competition, work and fight for the green card - without any forgiveness from the authorities or locals.
For meritocracy to work - it should be race agnostic.
Otherwise it is not a meritocracy.


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