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Out of the Woods / A Westporter reflects on fighting the War on Poverty

Published 12:09 pm, Wednesday, January 15, 2014
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The New York Times on Jan. 8 carried the headline, "50 Years Later, War on Poverty Is a Mixed Bag." The page-one story concluded that President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty had "largely failed."

When I read that, my thoughts immediately flashed back a half century to when I was a reform-minded young reporter for the New York World-Telegram & Sun. I had a genuine but totally unrealistic dream of a poverty-free America.

My heroes were newspapermen -- great reporters of the past such as Jacob Riis and Lincoln Steffens. I spent 18 hours a day, seven days a week trying to carry on their investigative-muckraking traditions and exposing "slumlords."

I recall that my wife perused the old bookstores in the city and meticulously put together the entire collection of Riis' books, including the collector's volume, "How The Other Half Lives," which she gave me as a surprise. She humored me.

I also vividly recall sitting in the City Hall office of the late New York Mayor Robert F. Wagner in the 1960s interviewing him about poverty in America -- and especially about the New York slums. I had spent the summer of 1959 as an undercover slum dweller in a dilapidated old tenement to experience firsthand the wretched conditions I had been writing about for years.

I asked Wagner what he thought the chances were that poverty eventually could be eliminated in New York and in the nation. He smiled, shook his head in disbelief, and replied, slowly and condescendingly: "Woody, we are always going to have slums. Don't you know that?"

A that moment, my reaction was that the mayor was a hardened veteran of a political machine that had little sympathy for guys like me -- dreamers with stars in our eyes.

I used his quote as an example of officialdom's gross indifference to the poor in my first book on poverty, "Let in the Sun." It was a study of one slum building at 311 East 100th St. in East Harlem. I had lived there as an undercover reporter to expose why it had become squalid nearly from the time it was built as a "New Law Tenement" in 1901. It since has been torn down.

It was only after I went to work as the late New York Mayor John V. Lindsay's press secretary in 1966 and later as a Lindsay advisor on housing that I fully realized how extremely frustrating it is -- because of the city bureaucracy -- to have one slum building torn down. It finally met the wrecking ball in the 1980s, when community protests caught the ears of city officials.

In hindsight and with the advantage of perspective and time, I still have not become totally disillusioned. I am disappointed but still a believer. Call me a "practical idealist." My overdose of social conscience as a youth has still not completely worn off.

I now believe, as I wrote in my most recent book, "American Poverty, Presidential Failures and a Call to Action," that the generations-old problem of poverty can be solved if America summons the will and the resources and a series of consecutive presidents who will keep the ball rolling.

As a journalist and political activist, I have been disillusioned at times, but somehow I managed to hang onto the inner core of my beliefs.

President Barack Obama expressed it best in his now-famous book "The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream" when he wrote: "We hang on to our values, even if they seem a times tarnished and worn; even if, as a nation and in our own lives, we have betrayed them more often than we care to remember What else is there to guide us? Those values are our inheritance, what makes us who we are as a people."

Judging by the presidential campaign of 2012 -- in which the word "poverty" rarely was mentioned -- it is highly unlikely that the next go-around in 2016 will evoke the subject. Unless, of course, one of the candidates links the hot topic of "income distribution" to poverty and makes a practical case that unless the shameful gap between the rich and the poor is closed, the U.S. economy will never grow as it has in the past.

It will take a bold, pragmatic candidate to bring that message home and tell the voters exactly how poverty is holding the entire country hostage. That, in my view, should be a front-burner issue.

Woody Klein is a Westport writer, and his "Out of the Woods" column appears every other Friday. He can be reached at wklein11@aol.com