RFK in EKY The Robert F. Kennedy Performance Project: Recreating Robert Kennedy's two-day, 200 mile
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September 8, 2004 // Transcripts and Pictures
Peter Edelman Speaks at UK
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Peter Edelman at University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY

I'm Shauna Scott and I'm the director of Appalachian Studies at the University of Kentucky, and it's my privilege to welcome you to this evening's festivities - which are somewhat more festive than I imagined when I was driving in! But before we get started, I'd like to thank the co-sponsors of the campus lecture - Appalachian Studies, the Dept. of Sociology, the College of Educational Policy Studies, an evaluation, and the Appalachian Center for making this evening's gathering possible. This event is, obviously part of a larger series of activities, which will be occurring throughout this week, and um, at this point, I'd like to invite John Malpede to remind us all of what's coming up after tonight.

Well that's right. We have all levels of activities and I hope you got your latest copy of the "RFK in EKY Times," because it has a map and it has an itinerary of all the events that are going to be taking place starting tomorrow morning in Campton. And we're going to be basically retracing a lot of the route that Peter Edelman and Robert Kennedy and Carl Perkins and many others, including some other the folks in this room, covered in 1968. And uh, we thought we'd be real smart and do this in September rather than February because we didn't want o risk bad weather. So uh, some things are bigger than what you can plan or attend or think of and uh, so far, I think this event is going that way as well because as we've been going into the different communities and researching it and stuff like that, it's turned out to be such an important event to many people's lives in Eastern Kentucky and really changed people's lives. So the notion of the event overall is to put a historical mirror up to the present moment and hope is that more lives can be richly inspired, changed, and I think with the current moment, this would be a really good thing to happen. We're trying to mix it up as much as possible, so there are talks about policy and issues mixed in with the re-creations of moments that happened, including two Senate field hearing where Robert Kennedy really provided the platform for people in Eastern Kentucky to talk about life in Eastern Kentucky . And uh, the cast is all people from Eastern Kentucky playing those roles, including some people whose parents were in the original event. And then we have several installation sort of elements and we have portable conversations with people in different communities. So it keeps going back and forth and back and forth and we didn't sort it out, you know, this is here, this is there and that's there. So anyway, we encourage you to come, uh, you know, probably wearing rubber boots, you know and uh, come and participate. It starts tomorrow in Campton with a pancake breakfast, which is really an excuse to style yourself in the 60's and we have lots of clothes donated by East Letcher Ministries and other places, so that you will be able to do that if you don't have anything that's not in a box somewhere in the attic. And from there we go on to the first hearing in Vortex. So please get really, scrupulously read the "RFK in EKY Times" and attend these events wherever you can and uh, because it's an opportunity to hear from you and everybody else on the route. So I want to thank everyone hear at the University and of course, all the different dimensions of Appalshop that have participated in this project and uh, I want to thank Peter Edelman, and I'm going to get out of here.

It is now my pleasure to introduce Sylvia Lovely, who will in turn, introduce tonight's distinguished speaker. Sylvia Lovely is a native of Frenchburg, Kentucky and she is the author of the 2004 book, New Cities in America : the little blue book of big ideas . Ms. Lovely is President of the new Cities Foundation, which is a national non-profit organization that encourages citizen participation in community and economic development. She served as the staff attorney and Executive Director of the Kentucky League of Cities, and is currently serving as interim Executive of Kentucky's new office of Drug Control Policy. She also serves on several Boards and Commissions, including Kentuckians for Better Transportation, Kentucky Habitat for Humanity, see there's me being an academic (the Humanities - but you know what Habitat for Humanities is.), the Governor's Commission on Family Farms, and Moorehead State University 's Board of Regions. She was named one of Kentucky 's Top Women of Influence and Appalachian Woman of the Year, and was recently a keynote speaker at an international conference of women leaders in the Dominican Republic . She is a graduate of Moorehead State University and the University of Kentucky College of Law, and is currently an adjunct faculty member of the U.K. Martin School of Public Policy and Administration. So join me in welcoming Sylvia.

Thank you. What a great crowd - this is awesome! How exciting. I have to do a little advertising, OK? City Magazine is my publication and there are several copies lying over here, right Brian? Alright. In City Magazine, it's a quarterly publication for community leaders, it's not a member publication, not aimed my 370 member cities, but we do profile the tour in City Magazine. It's about community affairs and I welcome you to get a copy of it and we'll send you continuing copies of it if you would like as well. But this is a great crowd and I'm so pleased to be here. I want to thank Shauna and thank you to everyone at the Appalachian Center and Appalachian Studies - what an important mission and what important work you do on behalf of truly, a cherished land.

I wanted to tell you just a bit about how I heard about this tour. I heard about RFK in EKY at the most recent East Kentucky leadership conference back in April. I didn't know anything about it. I know I hear a lot about Kennedys - my son who is a first year law student (I can't believe I have a first year law student), but he talks about Kennedy, practices speeches that Kennedy gives, I mean there's a whole new generation that is following the Kennedys, and that's really exciting. But I suppose you'd say I have more than just a passing interest in Appalachia . Not only was I born in Frenchburg, KY, I was born in City Hall. And if you don't where that is, it's about 60 miles east of here. A very poor little town, it rolls off kind of sharply at the edge of town, just off I-64, quite a bit off I-64. But I was born there. I left there when I was really young. I was on the phone early in my legal career with the city clerk and she was renovating an old building in the City Hall and I said, "There was an old hospital there, build by the Presbyterians, I was born there, my parents were trying to farm. " I said, "You wouldn't know what became of it would you?" And she gasped and she said, "That's what we're renovating in the city hall." So I think it's kind of appropriate that I am so passionate about cities. But it was truly early in my career that I became interested in cities and communities and how they develop and how they serve the needs of their citizens and how they can utterly fail the those citizens. I worked at the hardware of cities in my job as an association executive for 370 cities, kind of putting together the pieces, making sure the trains arrive on time. But it was really three years ago that I sort of put into action my true passion, which was starting the New Cities Foundation, which is looking kind of at the software, or citizenship, in the 21 st century, which I think is a very changed thing in a very changed world. But again, it was my life that really defined my passion. My parents did leave tiny and poor Frenchburg when I was just three months old, and like so many of their fellow Eastern Kentuckians, they went to Ohio . And that was the promised land, folk, for people with eighth grade educations who could get pretty good jobs at the factories. My father worked at National Cash Register for 30 years, until he was laid off. When he was 55 he came and took care of those boys that I had. Pretty good job for a fella, and he loved it.

But I grew up with all those jokes, and one my personal favorites was, "Do you really leave your shoes at the Ohio River when you come home every weekend, you ex-patriot Kentuckian?" But I was able to do what no one in my family could do: I could go to Moorehead State University and get a degree and it opened up my world. I was then able to go on and go to law school. That was so exciting for me and my family. And it's back home in Kentucky where I've stayed. And I've asked myself, over and over, 'What held back my birthplace? Are we making progress, in 2004, an unprecedented opportunity, as people in this age of terror, are actually leaving the east and west coast, and maybe not coming back in huge numbers, but coming back, seeking that elusive quality of life?' Our gifts of culture and small town living - are they suddenly en vogue, and what do we need to do to enhance those gifts. So, I look forward to this reenactment of Robert F. Kennedy's tour as a reprisal of a community conversation on just this topic. And to that end, let me begin the introduction of a very special guest. This is amazing on a rainy night. I love this. The saying goes, "Behind every great man is a great woman. I think it can work the other way around." But in politics I think the quote should be this, "Behind every inspiring national leader, are the people that mold his message." Peter Edelman was one of the people behind Robert F. Kennedy when he made his historic trip to the commonwealth in 1968. He also served in Edward Kennedy's 1980 presidential campaign as his issues director. Prior to that, he was a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg and before that, to judge Henry Friendly on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. He joined the faculty of Georgetown University in 1982, but took a leave of absence to serve as counselor to Health and Human Services Director Donna Shalaylah during President Clinton's first term. Peter returned to Georgetown and has written a book entitled Searching for America's Heart: RFK and the Renewal of Hope . Peter Edelman has written many articles on poverty and issues of children and youth. His words have made him a champion of the less fortunate and the underserved. It is my distinct honor to introduce to you Peter Edelman.

Thanks you so much Sylvia. I am just so honored to be here and see all of you. I don't know, I feel like I should just, looking around the room at all the people who have done so much about all these issues that we're going to talk about. I just don't know that I have very much to add. But one thing I want to say to start with is I think this is just a phenomenal thing that John and everybody associated with him, Henriette, and the whole group are doing and I just feel, not only honored to be here to see all of you tonight, but to be able to participate in this. So, just, in a selfish way, much less important than all the good this is going to do in starting that community conversation again and maybe contributing to a better national conversation, it's just uh, really terrific. And so I thank you in a very personal way as well as on behalf of all of us.

I might start, because in a sense, this is the beginning of the drama, the next two days of the trip, by saying a little bit about how it came to be. And what it felt like, and then I'm going to talk a little bit about, a little more broadly about the poverty issues of the time, the War con Poverty, and sort of what's happened since. It begins to be two days long right there, but I'll try to do it a little bit concisely.

Robert Kennedy had gone to Mississippi, as many of you know, in April of 1967 and it was my privilege to be there with him and sad to see what we saw, which was extreme hunger and malnutrition in this wealthy country. There were some particular reasons for it is Mississippi at the time because the power structure of the state and the agribusiness community were dedicated to driving as many of the black population out of Mississippi as they possibly could when they didn't need them for labor on the plantations anymore. But we discovered, quote unquote, that here was this near-starvation in our country. And so he, typically, when he would get, be very moved by something that he saw, that he learned about, and of course this was undeniable and he just had to get involved, so we started to think about, "Do we have that kind of hunger and malnutrition around the United States in other places?" And of course, he had a very special feeling for this part of our country, for eastern Kentucky, for West Virginia, for the whole, all of Appalachia . It had meant so much to President Kennedy and to Robert Kennedy personally. So we decided to come on down. And the thought was, remember, this is February of 1968 and there's a few other things going on in the world at the time, including the fact that he's thinking, still, and then ultimately decides to rn for president. Obviously there are people, and I was one of them, who wanted him to have decided a long time earlier than that to run, but he was thinking about that. In any case, we decided to come to eastern Kentucky . The notion was that we would make a number of trips around the country. Turns out that for the specific purpose of focusing on hunger and malnutrition and then you know, kind of ramifying out into all the other problems that people have in struggling and trying to survive. This is the only other trip besides the trip to Mississippi that we did make with that focus.

So, that was the frame of the trip. And Tom Johnson, whose sister is here tonight, and we're renewing our friendship, we were the advance people. And I think probably true, (I don't want to castigate or include Tom in this but..) I certainly should never be hired as an advance person - because we came down here and we laid out what in fact I think was a very revealing set of stops to make and places to hold pieces of the hearing and the biggest piece of it being the Fleming-Neon Gym. The one thing we sort of forgot to do is that, maybe given Robert Kennedy's - the interest in Robert Kennedy at the time - there might be some journalists who would want to come along too. And so we were just astonished to get off the plane in Lexington and see this incredible trail of cars that were there. And so, you know, the simple thing, if there'd been a little bit of prescience, would've been we would've hired probably what would've been two busses. But instead of that we would get to stops along the way and you know, I ask myself, "What do I remember most about the trip?" It was the journalist in the last car, the reporter in the last car. When we'd be finished talking to a family that we were visiting saying, "What's going on?" And I would have to say, "Well, actually, we're done with the stop here". And so, I didn't earn many friends among those who were covering it. And we were about two hours behind by the end of the first day as a consequence of having this trail of cars behind us and Robert Kennedy was not somebody who liked to run late and so, I was kind of in trouble from all sides. Now, did we do something else on the trip? I don't know. Anyway, that's the frame.

And of course, the wonderful thing about recreating the whole experience now is it reminds all of us of what was going on and it makes us look again at what is going on now. We didn't see conditions like we'd seen in Mississippi, but we saw severe poverty, you know that. And that was true then, and unfortunately, well, there's been a lot of change and some things that have been absolutely important in a positive way that've happened over the period of time. There's too much poverty now in Eastern Kentucky, as there is is the rest of our country. Well, so that was what we saw, uh, strip mining that had severe, Harry Caudill took us, I don't know who took us, uh, severe effects on the land and on people's lives in and around those strip mines. We saw, we learned about, we saw and made maybe some contribution to a little bit more attention to the fact that there was a lot of money being made there that wasn't staying in eastern Kentucky, that was going on out and lining pockets elsewhere and leaving people who were right there just as poor as they were before that coal was taken out. And so we saw and heard really not just about that kind of narrower important question of hunger and malnutrition that we'd come to see and hear about, but really the whole fabric of life. And so, that's what we're here for, in an immediate way, these two days.

Let me talk a little bit about the broader context. As we all know, there was a huge amount going on. Really unusual in our history to have that kind of concern about the people who are the left-out and left-behind in our society. And we'd had the tremendous changes after great struggle in the area of civil rights and of course, the thing that we still haven't gotten straight fully in this country is the connection between being a person of color and having, being more likely to be poor. But obviously, here in eastern Kentucky, we discovered that poverty is an equal opportunity concept. So there had been the historic civil rights legislation and there had been what was called, perhaps unfortunately, the War on Poverty. And while there's no particular anniversary, John. Of the production that we're undertaking here, this is the 40 th year since the Economic Opportunity Act, the War on Poverty was signed into law and that anniversary in fact, was celebrated, if that's a proper word, just a couple weeks ago. And then President Johnson, who really, really did care about issues of race and poverty in our country, not only signed the War on Poverty into law, but we had, during that period of time, Medicare and Medicaid, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, a whole bunch of job training programs and housing programs and really, a long list of things that constituted Lyndon Johnson's great society program. But it might be interesting to just take a little look at the War on Poverty because that is the smaller constellation of programs that we sort of remember and that we focus on, and that Robert Kennedy had a lot to do with.

When he, by the time he came here to eastern Kentucky, his thinking had developed more than I would say where it was in the early sixties, which is that, by 1968 he was very clear, and it's something that, again, we don't seem to ever get straight, that the heart of, if you're really gonna do something for people to be better off, is that they need to have jobs. They need to have good jobs and jobs that produce an income that's enough to live on. And so when you look back at the transcripts and in all the conversations he had while he was here on the visit, he talks over and over again about the need for jobs and the need for people to have a chance to support their families by working and being able to bring home a paycheck.

Well, the War on Poverty actually wasn't about jobs, if we're looking backward. It was about a lot of things that are very, very important that we still have: Head Start and Community Health Centers, Legal Services for the Poor and John Rosenberg's here and a lot of you, some of the lawyers in the room here, Upward Bound, Foster Grandparents, Vista, and of course, the much maligned, unfairly maligned, Community Action Program. Those were the elements of the War on Poverty. But you notice in that recitation that it was basically an opportunity strategy, with maybe a little "soup so", a little dollop of organizing thrown in as well. So when we look back and we say, "Why didn't it really make the difference?" It made a difference, it was important. And when you add it to those great society programs that I mentioned, then that's an even larger, very important set of things. But it didn't attack that very basic question of jobs and income.

Well, let me tell you about Robert Kennedy's involvement. The creation of what became the War on Poverty really started in his office the day he because Attorney General in 1961. You know, there's a lot of stuff that you hear about the "good Bobby" and the "bad Bobby" right? And until JFK died he was a mean prosecutor and he worked for Joe, well he did work for Joe McCarthy, we can't re-write that little piece of history. But that somehow, in the wake of the grief of the death of President Kennedy, there was a different person that emerged. Well that's, really, it's much more complicated than that and if you look at his whole life, he always had a kind of a feeling about people who were the excluded, people who were on the periphery. And in reference to what became the War on Poverty, in 1961, with all the things that he's undertaking as the new Attorney General, he installs in an office next to him, in the Justice Department, his teenage friend, his friend from teenage years, David Hackett, with whom he'd gone to High School, and says to him, "I want you to work on juvenile delinquency." Now what that meant was, "I want you to work on the lack of opportunity that a lot of young people have in this country - the reason why so many young people in this country, of all races, are not making it." That was what he meant by juvenile delinquency.

And so, there started a group of people who were some within the government, some from outside the government who met and Robert Kennedy would dip into it. There's a story that one of the participants remembers that there was a time when they were meeting and Kennedy came in, very calmly sat down, and then excused himself, as he often did for some other meeting. It turned out on the other end of the hall they were planning how to respond to the Cuban Missile Crisis. And he, you know, he'd come in. And I guess nowadays we'd call that compartmentalizing, but that's not a very kind word so, in any case, he was able to do all of these things. And there were twp things that he pressed on the group: one was that there should be a domestic peace corps, that there should be an opportunity for young people to serve and help, and of course that's been very important here in Kentucky, in eastern Kentucky, VISTA . And that was really Robert Kennedy's idea. The other was that whatever programs were started, low-income people themselves should be really in control of those programs. The idea that became, in the law, maximum feasible participation, caused all that political trouble, that really came from Robert Kennedy. So those were the two things. And as time passed, they really realized that well, they'd called it juvenile delinquency but they were talking about poverty and after President Kennedy was killed, the planning shifted in the White House when the War on Poverty was enacted. Now, I just, it's important for history to both, to have two sort of conflicting ideas here in mind. One is all of this was really important. It was really positive, it really made a difference, and the other is, is was a kind of a donut, lacking that jobs and income piece in the middle as I said before. And people I think here in Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky, Appalachia understood all of this all too well. Because here we had the country with the rhetoric you know, and I don't mean to say it was empty of a War on Poverty and a great society. And you had this large part of many counties in your state where huge numbers of jobs had disappeared or there were too many people who had no work and no possibility of work. And one of the interesting, and there's going be a lot of people in the room who could talk more about this, because Carl Perkins was the Congressman and cared so deeply about the people of Eastern Kentucky, what he had helped to create was to get a labor department program in, I think it was a labor department program in that was called Work Experience and Training. And uh, you know the basic thing about welfare in most places in this country and it was true in Kentucky, was you had to be a single parent, right, with basically the father not there in order to get welfare. Well, so, the vast majority of families were two parent families and so the way in which, given that no jobs were around, they could get income into these families was the men went through this Work Experience and Training program which came to be known as the "Happy Pappies." And they would cycle, essentially cycle back through it, although one, by the time we were there in 1968 there were a lot of men who'd been told, partly because the men had diminished in the wake of the Vietnam War and so the resources weren't there, Carl Perkins or no Carl Perkins. There wasn't the same availability of money to support that. Well at least that was there, but there was a lot of, lot of poverty.

Robert Kennedy as a Senator had, as I said, by the time he came in February of 1968, here, had really come to see the centrality of jobs and income on top of all those things he was already committed to in terms of education and opportunity and ending discrimination and community action and so on. And so he, of course again, it was a turbulent time and probably the most powerful influence on him was the violence that had broken out in our inner city, starting with Watts or South Central Los Angeles in 1965, at least in terms of the first very, very major urban rebellion. And he was kind of groping for ways to, he'd spoken very much publicly about the question of no jobs. I remember once I went to Watts with him in November of 1965. He had had a speech in downtown Los Angeles and the afternoon was free and, uh, he said, "Let's go to Watts ." So we got in a taxicab and we went and just got dropped off on a corner and started to walk around. And he saw a black man there and said, "Can I talk to you?" And the guy said, you know, like, "I think I know who you are.." He said, "Tell me about the problems. And the fellow said, "It's the flustraion man." And it was about the fact that there were really no jobs available, that that was THE fundamental issue. And of course, that's a concatenation of a whole lot things about race and distance of the inner city even though its not so geographically far away and so on and so forth. Well the very first thing that he had done as a United States Senator, the VERY first thing, in the beginning of 1965 was to get thirteen counties in the southern tier of New York state added to the Appalachian Regional Development Program. And that was about jobs of course. So then, after the Watts riots, he started working with community leaders in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York City to create what became one of the first community development corporations in the country to do a comprehensive neighborhood revitalization effort. And he got legislation enacted to provide federal funding for efforts of that type. Well of course, that was about jobs. The major point of that was about getting people jobs, providing jobs in the context of rebuilding a sense of community.

And that's actually, let me just stop on that point about community. Because I think that one of the things that is sad that's happened in our country over that period of time is that, in so many places, although I think I'm going to say in a few minutes that there's some great things that are happening about it, but in so many places, we have lost that sense of community. And so it isn't just about, our agenda, isn't just about the individual question of jobs and income, it's also in the context of being part of a functioning community and rebuilding that. Robert Kennedy understood that when too many poor people are all jammed into one place in the city, the problems multiply and you really have to have the solutions lifting the whole neighborhood, not just individuals.

Well then there was a third piece, you know, there was really, and it was, the thing that was so important for me was that I got this incredible education, you know, just by being there. He would go to these places, and I mean I guess, you know, I DID something, but it was, what I got in return was way, way more. So, a third piece was meeting Cesar Chavez, which happened in early 1966. And you know, Walter Ruther, somebody from Walter Ruther's staff called me, as the staff person and said, "There's this new farm labor organizing effort going on in California and the Senate Migratory Labor Subcommittee is going to, under Pete Williams, Pete Williams, Abscan." But Pete Williams was a senator who cared a great deal about poor people.really worked very, very hard on these issues. It was sad that he got into that difficulty.

So, we went to the hearings and they formed a friendship that lasted for the rest of Robert Kennedy's life and was very, very important. Well, migrant workers who were being paid horribly to work under awful conditions. So that we got into, Robert Kennedy was fighting to get laws passed to get them covered by the minimum wage. 1966, minimum wage on the books for thirty years in our country: farm workers not covered until 1966. And even then, the legislation that was passed only covered 2% of the nations farms and about 30% of the nations farm workers. So that says something about who has political power. And they still don't have the right to organize under federal law in 2004.

Well that was a part of his growing recognition, that jobs are a basic element - not just the job itself, but the conditions of work, the pay, everything - the decency of it. Now the fourth piece wasn't about jobs directly, but it was about the need for a safety net when there aren't any jobs. And I talked about his, earlier, about his trip to Mississippi, and it was that same concern that brought him to Eastern Kentucky.

Another piece of that, and he talked about it when he was here, was that he had come to see that the welfare system really provided cash assistance, that that system was deeply flawed, that it was helping people in totally inadequate ways. You couldn't really get out of poverty with welfare or the combination of welfare and food assistance. It was made available, grudgingly, and most important, it was unconnected helping people to find work. And to get away from depending on the cash help. Now what's sad, and this is just a personal comment, but what's sad is that that insight which is purportedly the premise of the 1996 welfare law, gets twisted in that law so that it doesn't constructively help people get off the roles and find their way to work and continue to provide a safety net for people who are not in a position to work. It takes that insight. And I think maybe what offended me the most - I'm about to say something not nice about President Clinton - I don't mean to say something not - I think President Clinton should be made president again. I didn't think that at the time. He quoted Robert Kennedy on the importance of work when he signed the welfare law - that really pissed me off.

Well, so, when he was here he talked about welfare not being the answer. And, you know, here are all these folks in Eastern Kentucky, many of whom are living with the welfare system. Everybody agreed with them because they really wanted jobs, they really wanted to work, and that's still true. People much, much prefer.I mean, obviously that's much more complicated.Not everybody is in the same position and able to take a job and so and so. You have to get into the individual human stories that are involved. But he really, Robert Kennedy had really already started to push for policy change that would put much more emphasis on helping people get jobs. And so, in 1967, he and Senator Joe Clark of Pennsylvania had introduced an amendment to the anti-poverty - to the War on Poverty - that would've put a billion dollars, and in those days a billion dollars was real money, as Senator .(?) would've said.

They put a billion dollars into job creation on Lyndon Johnson was of course pressed by the costs of the Vietnam War and probably against it because it was Robert Kennedy's idea, opposed the amendment and it lost. So, he was really very, very much a jobs person, as well as somebody who believed so strongly in the control over that which would be done emanating from and being in the community itself. He believed so strongly in that.

Alright.let me turn to how well we've done since for a little bit and then, kind of, where we need to go. Although I'm not gonna go through some substantive agenda, 'cause we kind of all know where we need to go. The question is how are we gonna get there?

Well there's some bad news and some good news and then some bad news and some good news that I'm gonna tell you about. The biggest, baddest news, in my estimation in this realm, is that the gap between the top and the bottom is so much bigger. I think that that is just very, very, very disturbing. This country has something like twice the income n real terms, after inflation, from what was the case 25 to 30 years ago and it's all stuck at the top. I mean, I don't have to tell you. I think everybody knows this. In uh, the late '70's, the top 1% of earners in this country had the same income as the bottom 20% (right? The same total.). Now it's the bottom 40% has the same income as the top 1%. So that's about 2.8 million people, maybe it's 2.9 million people by now, who have, let's say 2.9 million, the same income total as 116 million people. That's what those numbers say - 1% and 40%. Just some numbers about what's happened at the top: the top 1% from 1979 to 2000 - average income were up $576,000. 201% increase - in other words, triple - triple. Low is 20%, same period of time - up $1100. And that's only because of the hot economy of the last half of the '90's. If you took the same - there was a study don't in 1997 - which, at that point in time, the bottom 20% had lost $100 from 1979 until then. So it's just, you know, it's so dramatic. The ratio of the CEO to the line worker of income in 1982 was 42 to 1. By 2001 it was 411 to 1. If the minimum wage - I mean, I could go on all night, I'm only gonna give you one more here - if the minimum wage had gone up the same as CEO pay in the 1990's (crowd laughter). alright - should we take guesses? (laughter)

By 2001 it would have been $21.41 an hour. That's a cool one isn't it? And of course, we have, after all these numbers I told you, we have President Bush's tax cuts for the rich people - like they really needed them. So, basically, the whole bottom half in this country have been stuck for the last 30 years and I have to say, I don't get a lot of things about what's happening in this presidential campaign. Maybe some of you are scratching your heads too, but one of them is that there are so many millions of people in this country who have trouble making ends meet or who ought to have the sense that, that they've really been screwed. That even if they're doing OK, they could be doing so much better - if there was just, you know, some basic fairness. Not some, you know, great, big redistribution - just some basic fairness. That everybody paid their fair share of the responsibility for running this country. The current American prospect, Bob Reisch has a piece (I always what he says.) in which he, he says, "We really ought to be able to make a politics out of that."

Now, the poverty numbers for 2003, you probably saw in the papers, came out the other day. And we've got a kind of a stealth thing going on here, right? It just, starting.We really did hit, whether we give President Clinton credit or not, on his watch, we had a tremendous decrease in poverty. You know, the hot economy. The best anti-poverty strategy that there is, is a hot economy. And you know, you want to have schools that educate your children and things like that.that's a little bit important, but uh.

So we got the poverty rate got down to 11.3% in the year 2000. We hadn't been that low since the '70's. The lowest we ever were since we started counting this stuff was 11.1% in 1973. Well, it's kind of.creeping back up. So, it's up 12.5 instead of 11.3. That's, in three years, 4.3 million more American people are poor, in three years. And you know, it's a little itty-bitty million, you know, it's another one of those Everett Derson things, a little bit here, a little bit there - it adds up to real people after awhile in this case. 4.3 million more people poor during the current administration. And the worst of, and you probably read those numbers that I just said, but I don't know if you focused on what we call extreme poverty.

Extreme poverty is the concept of people who are below half, whose income is below half the poverty line. Right? Now, I have to say parenthetically, "poverty line"? Ridiculous, right? Try to live on the, $15,000.00 a year for a family of three, at least in an urban area, but really, really anywhere. So, this is below, for a family of three, $7500.00 a year. Well, first of all, we've been running 35 million poor people right along about there for some time so, actually for, just about steadily, about 40% of the poor are always people whose incomes are actually below half the poverty live. Which I think is shocking. Well, in the last three years, the number of people who are below half the poverty line went up by 3 million. Right? In other words, 3 million of that 4.3 million increase in poverty were people whose incomes were below half the poverty line. So now we're up to 15 and a quarter million people in this country live in extreme poverty. 15 and a quarter million people. Totally under the radar screen. Right? I mean, how many, if you just, probably some you in this room were aware of that.I'll bet you that's news to even people who care a lot about these issues.

Kentucky's poverty you know, is a little bit higher than the national.in Eastern Kentucky it's still the case that child poverty, for example, runs two to three time the national numbers. The national number's up to almost 18% now again and child poverty in Eastern Kentucky in many of the counties runs anywhere from 35% on up to over 50%. So, those are issues that we are still dealing with. And of course, we're up to 45 million people who don't have health insurance, which is up more than 5 million in three years. We still have only one in seven children who would qualify for federally financed child care, getting it. And of course, we have an administration that wants to cut rather than increase.

Alright, that was my first bad news. Long one. You know, there's been some good news over the years. The safety net for poor people actually got better, except for the welfare law in 1996. But, we tend to not focus on that. The fact is, for example, food stamps. Robert Kennedy comes down here and food stamps is very spotty, it's only in some counties and the big thing was, if you were in a county that had food stamps, you had to pay for the stamps. Remember that? Some of the people with grey in their hair will remember that. Weird. But it was true. You had an income of, you know, couple hundred dollars a month if that, and you had to go down to the.somehow put it together one time during the month and take your 24 or 36 dollars down to the food stamp office and they would give you 60 or 70 dollars worth of food stamps. But we don't have that anymore. Now you go - these were changes that came during the '70's - you go to the office and you get your allotment based on your income. They assumed, actually, in those days, that if you were poor, you weren't as hungry. So the amount of food stamps you got as your income went up was more. Don't do that anymore. Children had to pay for their school lunches in those days. Now we have free and reduced price lunch, but it's free for kids who come from families that are in poverty. And we have, I won't go through the whole list but, we induct social security, we have Pell Grants, we have expanded health coverage for children, we have a major expansion of the earned income tax credit. We've done a lot of, a lot of stuff. You know, if you have a minimum wage job, and you have two children, you get $4300 on top of that $10,000 job from the earned income tax credit. That's important. That's very, very important. And it's, you know, two parent family, one parent family - it doesn't have that aspect that welfare typically has.

On the other hand, the welfare law, and I'm looking at the clock here, so I won't going off on a detour about that, but I just have to say that a national law that says that you can only have five years of assistance that's federally financed during the time that you're raising your children is absurd. Now, states are free to put in their own money and there's a little bit of exemption for a small part of the case load, but basically what you're going to see in the coming years, is more and more families are gonna use up their eligibility for welfare - it's already happening - and if you live in a part of this country where there aren't any jobs, that's just doubly criminal to say, "Well, sorry for you, no help. Might not be your fault that you couldn't find a job, but you, you used it up. No more for you." And that's what our law is now. And there's more bad news in the fact that there's so many low-paying jobs. We've had a major change in the structure of the economy here. You know, I call it the Walmart-ization of America. And you know, OK, you can buy stuff for cheaper there, but uh, why? Because of what they pay people. Well, that's kind of where we are now.

And you know, you might say, "Well if we put all of that more money.." - and it does add up into tens of billions of dollars - you know, the earned income tax credit all by itself is 35 billion dollars. Food stamps, which is a major social policy achievement all by itself, is about 25 billion dollars, and on through a whole lot of other things. And you might say, in fact, there are some people of a different political persuasion than mine who do say, "Well, look at all this money that we're spending on the poor." And it's true that if we didn't spend this money we have that many more poor people. It's ALSO that the reason why we can't seem to, you know, we keep soending and we can't seem to reduce the rate on poverty is because the economy has fallen apart so badly for people at the bottom with all these low-paying jobs.

Well, one final piece of good news, I think, is that there are so many people, as I go around the country, who are in communities who are working so hard and are making such a difference. To build community, to help each other, to, both professionally and as volunteers and that's the real backbone here, I think. That's the real hope for the future. I call my book Searching for America's Heart because, or actually my editor found this when we were desperate for a title, I said, "All around this country, as I was looking, I found the heart of America." Because that's what it is. It's people in communities. And you know, our national leadership, whatever it is, it's terrible for us when it isn't good. But the way we carry on, the greatness of this country, is the people in the communities and what they do. So, that's, that's bad news, good news, bad news, good news.

Well, what should we be doing now? And I'm not up here to give a political speech, although, looking at all of you, I may be very tempted and uh.(crowd laughter and applause) OK. So let me put it this way: we really need a movement in this country. We really need a political and social movement to get everybody a fair shake and a fair share in this country, this wealthy country. And to make sure that everybody takes a fair share of the responsibility to contribute to what we need to do.

Now, this election is one part of that. I mean, this election is an opportunity for us to, all of us, to make a contribution towards building that movement. There are stark differences in what the two candidates for president would do and the directions that they would take the country. Stark differences. I mean, it's demonstrated. So, it's not that, it may be that too many of our fellow citizens have difficulty seeing that. And it may be that some of the people who see the stark differences are happy to see it go in the direction of the incumbent. But, I don't, obviously. And so what I want to see, although I do suspect I'm preaching to the choir - the reaction a minute ago rather supports that. People need to get involved in this election. Some people out there are doing their good stuff, you know, helping other people and they say, "Oh," you know, "Politics." although I must say I hear a lot less of that this year than I have in the past. But we need to make sure that we do everything we can to get everybody we can find out there and registered and committed to go out and vote. Nancy Johnson's been doing that. I bet a lot of you've been doing that. It's so important. We need to tell people why it matters. We need to tell people why it matters who wins this election. And not just for president, but for offices all up and down - the Senate, the House, all the way down. Maybe it makes more difference than ever. So we need to get involved in telling the candidates what we want from them, all the way up and down the ticket: education, health care, taxes, foreign policy (for those candidates who have a responsibility for that), whatever we care the most about. And tell them that we're gonna vote for the people who're going to act the way we want on the issues we care about. And we have to make this year 'round. If we're talking about building a movement, it has to be year 'round and not just at election time. You take that wonderful organizing that's going on around the country, that's a part of it. But we need to make that national, we need to make it add up. We need to make undeniable the push for jobs and income, for universal health care, for childcare, for portable housing, for good education for all of our children. And we have to do those things because we really can't afford not to.

The bottom line, and Robert Kennedy would say this, I'm sure, if he were here, is nobody is going to do what is needed except us. You know, the old pogo thing. There are some wonderful people, some wonderful people who hold elective office in this country who will do the right thing no matter what. But most people who hold office are going to be better or worse depending on who speaks to them most effectively. That's a fact. And generally, the people who want to do the things that aren't in the interest of most of the people are people with lots of money and they can put that money out there. Money power. So what we have, most of us here, all of us who care about these things, we've got people power - it's us. It's getting our friends and our neighbors and the people we work with and go to church with, or synagogue, or mosque, or have a beer and a coffee with - to see that it matters who they vote for, to see that it makes a difference, to see what an important election this is, to see that they have to vote.

'How do you get to Carnegie Hall' the old joke goes? 'You practice.' How do you change America? You organize. Organize. That's what we have to do and keep at it. My wife is fond of Sojourner Truth, you know, the great slave woman who was so committed to abolition of slavery and she was speaking to a crown and a heckler stood up in the back and he said, "Oh, woman, I don't care for you anymore than I care for an old flea!" And she said to him, "Well, Lord willing, I'm gonna make you keep on scratching." So, that's what we need to do. We need to be, Marion always says, "We need to be fleas for justice."

You know, Paul Wellstone always closed speeches by quoting Wendell Phillips, the abolitionist. And Wendell Phillips used to give a speech over and over again and he would say, "I'm on fire!" And people would say, "Wendell, why are you on fire?" And he would say, "Because I have so many tons of ice that has to be melted!" Same point. And then finally, well, I'm calling names of beloved people: Paul Wellstone. Paul Wellstone, I said, would talk about Wendell Phillips. And then Fanny Lou Hamer. Fanny Lou Hamer, Mississippi, 1964. Now, she always used to tell the following story:

There were two little boys who thought they were very, very smart. And there was a woman in the community, now I don't know why this is a story about two little boys, but OK, alright. So, they thought they would catch a bird and they would take it to the wise woman and they would fool her. And they would cup it in their hands and they would say, "Is this bird alive or dead?" And if she said that it was alive, they would crush the bird and show her the dead bird. And if she said it was dead, they would open their hands and let the bird fly away. So either way they would confound her. So they did that and they took it to her. And they said, "Is this bird alive or dead?" And she said, "Boys, it's in your hands." So it is in your hands and. thank you for this evening.

NEXT: September 9, 2004
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