Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Poverty Amid Plenty

What happens when a sociologist crosses a historian in a parking lot? This morning, as my colleague Michael Durfee and I walked into our office building, he told me he wanted to share something that Martin Luther King said about poverty. Michael, a Ph.D. candidate in the history department at SUNY Buffalo, pointed out these words from Dr. King:

"Poverty is a glaring, notorious reality for some forty million Americans. I guess it wouldn't be so bad for them if it were shared misery, but it is poverty amid plenty. It is poverty in the midst of an affluent society, and I think this is what makes for great frustration and great despair in the black community and the poor community of our nation generally."

Michael provided me with background information about this quote. Dr. King appeared at the sixty-eighth annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly on March 25, 1968. At the convention King responded to questions submitted in advance to Rabbi Everett Gendler, who facilitated the event. The answer that you see above was in response to a question about the Kerner Report and how to work towards social justice and equality.  

Michael and I have a shared interest in inequality. Earlier this semester, we both attended a panel discussion about inequality. At the event, a viewpoint was expressed that poverty in America isn't so bad. The basic point was that poverty is much worse in lesser developed countries. After all, poor people in America have TVs, so how bad can poverty be? I strongly disagree with that line of thinking. I don't think that any poverty is good poverty. When Michael showed me these words from Dr. King, he referenced the panel that we had attended. The passage reminds us of how difficult it is to endure poverty in a rich nation. Poverty is difficult to endure anywhere. But there is an extra layer of frustration and strain that impoverished people experience in a land of plenty. If everyone is poor, it's hard to be poor and it doesn't feel good. It sure doesn't feel better (maybe it even feels worse) when you're surrounded by excess.

Source of quote: Clayborne Carson et al. (editors). 1991. The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader. New York: Penguin Books. The quote appears on page 402.

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