Bankole: Clinton late to the poverty debate

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

‘The true measure of any society is how we take care of our children. With all of our country’s resources, no child should ever have to grow up in poverty. Yet every single night, all across America, kids go to sleep hungry or without a place to call home,” is the opening line of Hillary Clinton’s Sept 21 column in The New York Times.

The problem is that such public recognition of the need to fight the poverty that is stealing the future of our children is coming a little bit too late in the game. The Democratic nominee for president had ample time in this campaign to have made poverty a blazing and central theme of her run for the White House and link it to the economic weariness that affects rural and urban voters in the country.

One of the reasons the civil rights movement — some of whose earlier leaders like U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson have endorsed Clinton — was able to create some monumental and symbolic changes was because it successfully made people realize that poverty affects both whites and blacks.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at the 11th Annual Southern Christian Leadership Convention in Atlanta in 1967, asked a fundamental question about poverty in his speech “Where Do We Go From Here.”

“Why are there 40 million poor people in America?” King asked before addressing the ravages of poverty and what he described as the “discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace.”

King was beginning to move from a civil rights platform to an economic justice message because as he pointed out in his acceptance speech for the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize “people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”

So the question for Clinton now should be: What is your poverty plan? Writing a newspaper column to express disdain about the issue is not a panacea to the problem.

Because the race is tight and Donald Trump, the Republican nominee seems to be catching up, Clinton now wants to talk about the issue that should have been the hallmark of her campaign.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont gained traction with young people and carried the Michigan primary because he came off as believable and championed an economic message that included taking on Wall Street. That message resonated with young people across the nation, especially college students who are graduating saddled with owing thousands in student loans. Without a decent jobs to take care of their families while paying those loans, these young people could be one step away from poverty.

Clinton has not been as compelling as Sanders and that is why some in the millennial generation have remained skeptical of her.

Trump’s campaign, meanwhile, has amplified the voices of bigots. But he also has tapped into the economic anxiety of some white males — who also have a fear of falling into the ranks of poverty — that is giving his campaign currency.

Clinton missed an opportunity recently on the anniversary of the passage of welfare reform — key legislation signed in 1996 by former President Bill Clinton — to speak on the issue. Winning politics is not about what you know. It also is about seizing opportunity to remind people that you, the candidate, truly care about issues affecting people’s living conditions.

When then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama was made to answer for bombastic sermons about racism of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama went to Philadelphia in the middle of the campaign to address the issue of race.

Why can’t Clinton go to the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., and roll out a plan to seriously address poverty?

Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson” on Super Station 910 AM Wednesdays and Fridays. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.