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Westport author sounds a call to arms against poverty

Published 7:53 am, Tuesday, February 26, 2013
  • Woody Klein reads from his new book, "American Poverty: Presidential Failures and a Call to Action," which examines the anti-poverty record of every American president. Photo: Paul Schott / Westport News
    Woody Klein reads from his new book, "American Poverty: Presidential Failures and a Call to Action," which examines the anti-poverty record of every American president. Photo: Paul Schott

 

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When Woody Klein was a reporter for the New York World-Telegram & Sun, he took an assignment in the summer of 1959 that required him to move into an apartment in a tenement building at 311 East 100th St. in East Harlem in Manhattan. The conditions there were abysmal. He lived two months in a rat-infested, unventilated structure where dozens of residents slept side-by-side in cramped quarters.

"It was just a horrible experience," Klein recalled. "I can still smell the stench of those hallways. These were not bad people; these were just terribly poor people, desperately poor."

From that experience, Klein wrote a 10-part series, "I Lived in a Slum." The series was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and was the basis for Klein's debut 1964 book, "Let in the Sun."

Poverty remained a top issue for Klein when he served as as then-Mayor John Lindsay's press secretary and then as a New York City housing administrator in the mid-1960s. During that time, he continued to advocate for the teardown of 311 East 100th St. Finally, in the 1970s, the building was demolished and replaced with new apartments and playgrounds.

More than 50 years after Klein resided in the East Harlem slum, widespread poverty continues to afflict the U.S. About one-third of Americans live in or near poverty, according to U.S. Census Bureau data cited by Klein in his new book, "American Poverty: Presidential Failures and a Call to Action."

Published last month by Potomac Books, "American Poverty" is the eighth book written by Klein, a Westport News columnist and former Westport News editor.

It chronicles and analyzes every American president's efforts to combat poverty -- or oftentimes lack thereof -- and examines why so many Americans still are poor. Among the influences on "American Poverty," Klein cites Michael Harrington's seminal 1962 book on poverty, "The Other America."

The Westport News recently sat down with Klein, 83, for a wide-ranging conversation, during which he explained why reducing poverty has proven challenging for American presidents, assessed President Barack Obama's record on the issue, and offered his recommendations for reducing the number of Americans living in impoverished conditions.

Q: What motivated you to write "American Poverty"?

A: It got to be 2011 and 2012 and it had been 50 years since Michael Harrington wrote "The Other America," which Lyndon Johnson and Jack Kennedy got a hold of and launched the war on poverty. I don't have any illusions that Barack Obama is going to open this book and launch another war on poverty. But it was my thought that maybe it's time to put the spotlight back on poverty because we now have more poverty in 2013 than we had 50 years ago when Johnson launched his war on poverty. This country now has one out of three people living in or near poverty.

Somehow or other, I've never become cynical. I just said to myself I still believe that something can be done.

Q: Why has it been difficult for many, if not most, American presidents to effectively address poverty?

A: Many of them were not interested. Or, if they were, they couldn't get too many people in Congress interested. It's not one of those hot-burning subjects that draws voters.

Secondly, I don't think poverty was a major concern to most Americans before Johnson introduced it as a major plank in the 1960s.

And the third reason I think it was difficult was that Congress, even as we knew it in the old days, was so interested in funneling projects back to their own districts and senators taking care of their own states that few people thought of poverty as being a problem that they possibly could attack. I don't think they thought of it as a national issue. It only became that in the last 50 years.

Q: In "American Poverty," you identify Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson as the four presidents who "did the most to eliminate poverty in America." Why do you give them that distinction?

A: That's my judgment based on my research of all 44 presidents. Each one (of those four presidents) contributed a great deal in his own way.

Lincoln -- because he preserved the union and freed the slaves and was extremely interested in putting all Americans on the same footing. Teddy Roosevelt -- because he was such a crusader against slums and horrid living conditions in all the American cities. FDR -- because of the New Deal and he couldn't have done more for bringing Americans back on their feet between 1932 and 1945. And Lyndon Johnson because of his war on poverty and his voting rights act.

Q: How would you assess Barack Obama's record on combating poverty?

A: I don't think Obama has contributed a lot, if anything, to eradicating poverty. I don't think it's been on his screen. I think the reason for it is because he wanted to be dispassionate and not to identify himself with the downtrodden. I don't think the average black lower-middle-class or poor person sees him as their hero when it comes to doing anything about poverty.

And it may be because he wanted to approach the presidency even-handedly. And he probably didn't want to lean over backwards or go out of his way to do much about poverty -- white or black or Hispanic -- for fear of being called a socially liberal left-winger. And I don't think he believes government can solve all the problems. I just don't think he was brought up that way. I think it would almost be out of character for his personality and his background and his education.

I think he has stayed away from race and poverty as issues to tackle because he thinks those are issues that are not politically popular and he has enough on his plate just dealing with the economy, the health issues, issues with gay marriage, all the other social issues.

Q: What would you recommend that President Obama and other elected officials do to fight poverty?

A: We need to provide more subsidized government housing, not necessarily of the 20-story, public-housing things that used to turn into ghettos, but just planned communities where you have middle income, plus some affordable housing. We're talking about that here in Westport.

Foremost, more than anything, we've got to start with education. And there are lots of ideas out there, and I don't have a magic bullet, but we have to put much more resources into the quality of teachers, into the size of the classrooms.

If you retain your seniority as a teacher based on the number of years you're teaching, that doesn't mean you're a good teacher. I do believe that we need to evaluate teachers in a different way, so that those who are not cutting it anymore or never cut it in the first place, we don't need. We don't have to fire them, but we can ease them out in some way.

In our impoverished neighborhoods, where kids go to their local school -- take some of the local schools in Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant or some other parts of the country like the Watts area in Los Angeles -- I like the schools that set up choices. I like the concept of charter schools. I'm not abandoning public schools, but if we can't have a decent public-school system in certain areas, then they should be closed.

Q: Why should Westport residents care about reducing poverty in other parts of the state and other parts of the country?

A: Because they're part of a citizenry right now in the country which is existing in a shaky economy, which is not necessarily going to get better by itself. There's no guarantee that if you're well-off today, you're going to be well-off 10 years from today. Nobody knows what's coming down the pike.

I just feel people in Westport and all these other places around the country, they need to expose their kids to the fact that there are other human beings in this country who are suffering through no fault of their own, other than that either they were not born here or born here in very poor circumstances and open their eyes to it. I don't know that Americans have enough of a social conscience to realize that if the country is going to prosper we have to reach out to others who are less fortunate and help them, in which case we are participating in a democratic process.

pschott@bcnnew.com; 203-255-4561, ext. 118; twitter.com/paulschott