Fifty years ago this month President Lyndon Johnson signed into law a remarkable piece of legislation. It came to be known as The War on Poverty.
Several posts on this blog have been commemorative. Certain events that happened twenty-five, fifty, or a hundred years ago should be remembered, noted, and honored. We ought to think about them and the impact these moments have had on our lives. For many of you these are history class assignments requiring you to research the Internet or in (sheesh) real books and magazines in order to get the facts, ma’am. In my case, I remember the incidents themselves and can track the new arc my life or other’s lives have taken because of such moments. Yes, it’s a comment on how old I am and how young you are, or maybe how sentimental I am and how incidental these events might appear to you.
To show how far I go into the way-back machine: I have a scar on my body that most of you don’t, that most of you have never seen, either mine or anyone else’s. It’s a quarter-sized, scraggly dent on my upper left arm from the smallpox vaccination I got when I was about three years old. My dad, a newly minted physician, had taken me to Jefferson Medical Hospital in Philadelphia and lined me up with the other lucky recipients. (And yes, we were damned lucky to have access to the vaccination.) A glass stall enclosed a huge flame, maybe to sterilize the instruments or to heat the vaccine. Or maybe I remember a fiery part of the process that didn’t actually happen, adding import to an event so large that only the adjunct of fire could capture its significance. Smallpox vaccination is given with a bifurcated needle, a thin steel tool that resembles a tiny pitchfork. I watched the needles being dipped into the serum and scratched into flesh, one swabbed arm after another. I was too terrified to cry or at least I think I was. More likely I screamed my head off. I was possibly, probably, the youngest person to be vaccinated that afternoon, but my father was not going to let me leave Philly without that armor. There might have been only a very few cases of smallpox in Philly to worry about, though they did frighteningly appear in the contiguous States. At that time, nearly everyone in any part of the U.S. was vaccinated as the illness was an equal opportunity invader and anyone could get it.
Hawaii, tropical island stepping stones from Asia to the U.S. mainland, was a Petri dish of exotic bacteria. Immigrants from Japan, China, the Philippines, Guam, and Malaysia crowded into Hawaii’s cheaply built slum neighborhoods, hoping the one foot lodged on the islands might lead to another on the California coast. The tangle of immigrants from those teeming and mostly poor countries brought all kinds of illnesses, even though the U.S. Departments of Health and Immigration tried to bar their entry. Sure the contiguous 48 contributed their own feverish stew to the islands, but smallpox in Hawaii, spread by contamination of bodily fluids from infected people, was more prevalent and more threatening than mainland illnesses. Our family was on its way to Honolulu where we’d live the next year while my dad served in the U.S. Army as a physician at Tripler Army hospital.
So I stood in line with my parents while the technician poked a dozen bubbles of liquid into my arm. Hurt like the frigging devil, or maybe it hurt more because I was little, and that thing festered up into a huge blistery glob of pussy, yellow infection. A week or so after the inoculation the thing began to dry up until it was an itchy, crusty, reddish scab that eventually separated from my arm and fell off. Probably in the bathtub. I was left with my honorarium, a tender crater on my arm that would last forever. One that you probably don’t have.
The wonderful thing is that smallpox vaccination is no longer necessary; it’s why you don’t know what my scar looks like, and why you don’t have one of your own. The World Health Organization eradicated smallpox so thoroughly that the disease no longer occurs naturally, and the painfully infected pocks, fevers, and oftentimes death it caused are miseries of the past. Smallpox is in fact the only disease successfully wiped out by persistent worldwide inoculation of the vaccine to all populations. I, vaccinated at three, am part of that history, a draftee in that army.
I was also part of the War on Poverty, not so much a recruit as a cheering witness. The legislation was officially the Economic Opportunity Act, a major federal mandate that aimed to reduce the chasm between the poor and the rich, to create quality education for everyone starting with toddlers, and provide access to services that would maintain decent nutrition and overall health no matter how poor or in what cultural Petri dish one might have been born. I won’t open this post to debate about its success rate or whether or not it crafted a welfare state. You can argue that one at your weekly Texas hold ‘em night.
Poor people came to expect that their children would have an equal opportunity to basic medical care, a healthy diet, quality education, and eventually to meaningful employment. Their aging parents would have access to medical clinics. The low wages that many people earned would not hold them hostage to constant and frightening illnesses, or their kids to limited, physically draining, poor paying jobs as fast food restaurant workers, suburban maids, and nomadic crop pickers. The act fed kids and opened doors to decently funded schools. It brought into poor districts the kinds of programs that middle class and wealthier folks expected as part of their social contract with America. High school civics class taught that democratic society rolled best on the oiled wheels of a strong middle class, and the War on Poverty aimed to lift the impoverished masses onto the tracks heading to middle class status.
I’ll grant the war wasn’t a total victory. I’ve lived a short distance from the government sponsored projects in Detroit, teeming and dangerous slums with names like Willow Gardens. I’ve driven through East L.A.’s barrios with my windows rolled up and doors locked, admittedly lost and too frightened to ask the way out. I’ve worked in a big city school, meaning in a very poor neighborhood with really poor children whose breakfast was sometimes a bag of chips and more often nothing at all. The culmination of the War on Poverty was not so much obliteration of poverty and the ill effects of poverty on society as much as an eventual debate over how to get people off their knees, how to get folks to accept personal responsibility for one’s actions, and how to teach them to productively manage their own lives. It is now often sadly, tragically a violent war on illegal drugs, illicit sex, rampant alcoholism, stockpiled guns, and a dire outlook on life. Those battlefields cross cultural and economic lines and will have to be fought aggressively with more than money poured into social programs. Someone is going to have to stand up and speak a new sermon and folks are going to have to sign up for the new army.
Still I am part of a new war, a war on ignorance, a war for access to information, a war for sound education. I don’t care what you call it, but this war can and will be won with words, lots of them, listening to, internalizing, acting on them. Not everyone who becomes engaged in this mighty conflict will be a brilliant professor, a conscientious politician, a dedicated social worker, or even a charismatic leader. Some will be like me, a person who writes and makes art, a person who wants to share what she knows, who wants to make sure that everyone has a book in their hands or at least one at home, a bookmark noting the last passage read, the next one to be scrutinized. Yes, I do want to be paid (I have bills, sigh…) but it’s passion for writing that keeps me working on the manuscripts.
Several years ago I was asked to teach art to kids at a conference for the families of children with Klinefelter syndrome and other chromosomal abnormalities. These conditions are caused by extra X or Y chromosomes that interfere with the ability of the individual to thrive, to learn, and to function independently in many situations. The kids exhibit learning and behavioral disabilities that boggle reasonable strategies for control. It isn’t an illness that teems in poor families, though many of them spent much of their income for their ill children. I gave art lessons while the parents discussed what drugs and therapies were being developed on the frontier of their kids’ conditions. What I discovered at the very first class was that the kids were uncommonly kind and compassionate, that they shared so well that ordinary ownership looked like miserly hoarding in comparison, that they adored creating art (at which most were very good,) and that they loved listening to and making up stories.
Decades of teaching art to “normal” kids from kindergarten to high school, and this summer conference was one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had. They paid me an honorarium but my payment was really the joy of being with such appreciative kids. I learned that not everything I taught was going to help a kid do well in subsequent art classes or in any class. Kids who struggled with everyday studies felt triumphant about their creations, and I’d been fortunate to be part of that. They were children who made stuff, like all kids, but they were also children who made an impression on me for their ability to overcome some of their genetic conditions. At the end of the conference I couldn’t see their disabilities. I saw the patience and friendship they extended to everyone. It wasn’t a war I fought or won, not a battle or even a skirmish. It was more like I sighted the enemy and realized we could make peace.
This is the war that we writers and teachers can wage, that we volunteer combatants can claim for at least partial victory. I challenge you to write your heart out and to teach your readers something new in every story. I encourage you to share your talents by dramatizing the joy of skill and knowledge so that the person next to you wants to learn and wants to teach their neighbors and their kids. I invite you to open your heart to people a bit different from yourself and see what gifts they long to share.
I am a teacher and a writer. I was around when smallpox was a genuine threat to people around the globe and when the painful vaccine was declared no longer a necessary part of one’s health regimen. I was around when President Johnson signed his name on the signature legacy of his administration in 1964. I hope to be around when the War on Poverty is declared defunct, battled successfully by people who sincerely believe that educational and creative opportunities belong equally to everyone, no matter their social status, their parents’ bank account, their school district, the part of the world where they live, or even their genetic inheritance. I wish for all wars to end, the treaties signed because the need has been eradicated. Let the War on Poverty be won.