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The Violence of Poverty

On April 22, 1968, the National Welfare Rights Organization held a vigil on Capitol Hill in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been murdered eighteen days earlier.  This was to have been the day that King presented the demands of the Poor People’s Campaign to Congress. At the vigil, the NWRO presented its “Proposals for a Living Memorial” to King demanding a national guaranteed annual income, a federal job creation program, and the repeal of the punitive welfare sections of the 1967 Social Security Amendments.  The NWRO framed their proposals as the first steps in establishing “the only fitting memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King — a society with liberty and justice for all.”  Speakers recalled King’s insistence on the connection between poverty in the U.S. and the cost of the U.S. imperial war in Vietnam, highlighting the entwined violence of poverty and empire.

Consistent with the escalating criminalization of the poor that the vigil aimed to underscore, all the participants were arrested.  In court, the presiding judge berated the defendants for what he perceived as their commiseration with those who rioted in DC after the news of King’s assassination.  In response to the assertion that the vigil was in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. the judge dismissively remarked “That’s what… [the rioters] said they were doing when they burned the town down.”  From the perspective of the judge, the vigil could be nothing more than a flagrant disregard for law and order and evidence of the unruly excess of the War on Poverty.

With the multivalent and resurgent (un)Occupy movements today in mind, the preempted NWRO memorial is important to evoke now for its far-reaching challenge to the state-sanctioned violence of poverty.  Welfare rights activists demanded a more substantial government effort to confront social and economic inequality than that provided by Lyndon Johnson’s antipoverty program. In opposition to policymakers and social scientists who derided welfare as shameful dependence and personal failing that rightfully made recipients suspects and legitimized oppressive state surveillance, welfare rights activists insisted on a guaranteed annual income as a fundamental social obligation and central to the purpose of the state itself.  The NRWO’s “living memorial” for King argued that the U.S. state should be compelled to provide the conditions for social well-being and the basic necessities of life — especially for poor women of color and those people rendered most vulnerable to social abandonment and exploitation.

During this same period, liberal government achieved a new synergy between militarism overseas and urban policing on the home front.  Military technologies honed in wars abroad were used to dramatically reconfigure domestic law enforcement.  The continuum of state violence and its corollaries at home and abroad targeted poor people of color to fortify the profits of the wealthy.  National “defense” should be understood less as justifying imperialist wars in Southeast Asia, claimed the NWRO, than as a means of providing guaranteed minimum annual income as a basic national responsibility.

During the twentieth century, U.S. liberal policymaking worked primarily to safeguard the capitalist world market rather than address inequality.  Indeed, poverty as a category apart from the crisis of the Great Depression was not directly the concern of the Roosevelt administration.  The administration shifted through the rubble of economic collapse in an effort to restore and secure the status quo of capitalist accumulation.  In an often-quoted passage from his 1935 State of the Union address, Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared that “The lessons of history… show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre.  To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.  It is inimical to the dictates of sound policy.  It is in violation of the traditions of America.”  This same attitude remained predominant nearly thirty years later.  Addressing Congress on March 16, 1964, President Johnson proclaimed that “The war on poverty is not a struggle simply to support people, to make them dependent on the generosity of others….  It is an effort to allow them to develop and use their capacities… so that they can share… in the promise of this Nation.”

Rather than accepting the pejorative terms of dependency and the ostensibly self-evident good of America’s “promise,” the NWRO and the Poor People’s Campaign launched by Martin Luther King, Jr. before his murder demanded an end to the long-standing practice of faulting the poor for the conditions of poverty.  Whereas such invectives as Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s rant against the putative “tangle of pathology” birthed by black matriarchy or Senator Russell Long’s infamous “brood mare” diatribe sought to further vilify and degrade single-motherhood, the NWRO promoted guaranteed annual income as an explicit program for the economic and social autonomy of poor women.

As spelled out in their “living memorial” and subsequent initiatives, the NWRO proposal for a guaranteed annual income was distinct from contemporaneous liberal, neoliberal, and conservative plans put forward under the same name.  John Kenneth Galbraith advocated the idea of a basic income as a necessary complement to the “affluent society.”  Milton Friedman’s scheme for a negative income tax was committed to bolstering consumer-driven market choice.  Richard Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan introduced the first version of workfare in the guise of guaranteed income. Against all these endeavors to shore up market-based commitments, the NWRO called for an end to any and all of the means-tested measures of character and compliance that underwrote Aid to Families with Dependent Children.  The current Temporary Assistance to Needy Families initiatives for “healthy-marriage promotion” and “pathways to responsible fatherhood grants,” themselves only the meager aftermath of the “end of welfare as we know it,” perpetuate and intensify such coercive state paternalism.  The NWRO “living memorial” rejected these normative scripts, instead contending that “Those who truly support the ideals for which Martin Luther King fought and died must face and act upon the underlying problems of poverty and injustice in our society.”

In their efforts to refuse liberal cooptation, reformist calls to “rebuild the American dream,” and the incorporative promise of electoral politics-as-usual (un)Occupy and other social movements today can usefully take up welfare rights activists’ insistence on the federal government’s fundamental responsibility to the poor and their resolute challenge to the state’s active complicity in the globally-interconnected violence of poverty.

Cheri Honkala’s 2011 campaign for Sheriff of Philadelphia on a “no evictions” platform is one example of the persistent legacy of the NWRO.  Honkala established the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in 1990 and helped found the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign in 1998.  Although she didn’t win the election for Sheriff last year, her run for office highlighted the role of “law enforcement” in our current era of foreclosure and homelessness.

Alyosha Goldstein is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico and author of Poverty in Common: The Politics of Community Action during the American Century.

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