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It’s The Poverty, Stupid.

First of all, sorry about the stupid. I don’t like that word and I really don’t like any kind of meanness. It’s just that I believe we could save a lot of time and personal energy if we could cut to the chase and agree that fallout from poverty is at the heart of most of the problems we have in this nation, state, city.

Now of course racism is still a big problem in 2015. But honestly? If the majority of the people of all races living in poverty were empowered to become truly self-sustaining–you know, “part of the solution”–I think we might even make advances on that front.

I am very grateful that I have never experienced real poverty. By accident of birth, I was born into a family of educated parents who always had meaningful employment. They worked hard. They were able to feed us, send us to school, take us places and still have enough energy left over to read to us, play with us, counsel us–the marrow that really shapes a kid. But I have sure seen the fallout from poverty many times through my work over the years. In almost every instance following an interview or taping I realized that under different circumstances I could be that person struggling, struggling, struggling, especially in an economy without much meaningful employment for semi and unskilled workers.

In the lead-up to the holidays, I saw TV spot after TV spot for car title loans luring low-income folks into greater debt so they could buy Christmas presents. Diabolical. I also saw appeal after appeal for every kind of charitable support. Nice, but not the answer. The trickle down thing is ultimately inequitable and unsustainable. It’s a conundrum to me that a lot of people, poor and otherwise, flock to places like Walmart to get the “lowest guaranteed prices” on cheap goods more-than-largely produced in countries where many workers are paid low wages even by their own standards. I know we live in a global economy and we certainly owe it to parts of the world from which we have profited to help sustain their economies. But why can’t we make things, really make things here at home? Who wouldn’t pay a little bit more for goods that were helping to create sustainable employment for people who live here? Yeah.

And why can’t we train the thousands of our citizens currently underemployed with the skills needed to repair and rebuild the precarious infrastructure in this country–bridges, tunnels. Why do we have so many for-profit prisons instead of creating meaningful enterprise in the distressed neighborhoods that seem to produce so many of the prisoners? Yeah again.

What about education? Anyone who has ever passionately taught in a public institution in this country–the wealthiest on earth–has spent their own money to improve the learning environment in their classrooms. But why do so many of our public schools in poorer areas still have to scrape and fundraise just to maintain? Why are they by-and-large so slow to achieve? It’s got to be poverty. The poor children of poor parents, for the most part go to poor schools that are usually located in or near poor neighborhoods.

Long term poverty destroys almost everything: self confidence, ambition, trust, hope, order, spirit–all the stuff that rolls into underachievement, illness, dependency, crime, violence. This is not to let those who behave badly (and worse) off the hook. There is always personal responsibility. But people need purpose, real purpose, especially men. They need the kind of real skills that lead to real jobs and steady paychecks.

I overheard someone at a holiday party talking about “the problem”, about those people sucking up all of our public resources, blah, blah, blah. Perhaps I could create a new television program called, “Undercover Poor” and recruit this guy as the first guest participant. It would be most entertaining. Look, there are many people focused on this thorniest of problems–good people working hard on a micro level to educate, train and employ the people on the bottom in this land of plenty. And, plenty is the word alright, especially for those at the tippy top. The question is, what can we do on a macro level to produce meaningful progress toward reducing institutional poverty in our cities, states, country? Maybe a New Deal to get the ball rolling?

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About Sharon Baker

Sharon Baker’s creative expertise and life long interest in advancing social justice through critical storytelling have been the driving forces behind TELEDUCTION's success since its expansion to film and television in 1982. Expert in the art of the interview, she has documented the struggles and achievements of people in neighborhoods throughout the US, and in settings in Africa, China, Central America and elsewhere, tapping into the humanity of her subjects from the powerless…to Presidents. Her titles include Cartoons Go to War, Whispers of Angels, With All Deliberate Speed: Brown v. Board, Estamos Aqui and Why I Write. TELEDUCTION programs have been broadcast via American Public Television, The History Channel, The BRAVO Network, National Geographic Worldwide, and are in educational distribution throughout the US. Sharon’s extensive experience as a producer, director, writer and photographer has netted her prestigious industry awards Emmys, National Gabriel, bronze and silver Chris Awards) and Palm D’Or at distinguished Film Festivals, including the Heartland International Film Festival(2011).
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