"What does it mean to be poor in America? We can offer no single description of American poverty. But for many, perhaps most, it means homes with peeling paint, inadequate heating, uncertain plumbing. It means that only the very lucky among the children receive a decent education. It often means a home where some go to bed hungry and malnutrition is a frequent visitor. It means that the most elementary components of the good ife in America--a vacation with kids, an evening out, a comfortable home--are but distant and unreachable dreams, more likely to be seen on the television screen than in the neighborhood. And for almost all the poor it means that life is a constant struggle to obtain the merest necessities of existence, those things most of us take for granted. We can do better."
--Paul Wellstone, "If Poverty is the Question," The Nation, April 14, 1997
We can do better. That was Senator Paul Wellstone's abiding belief. Wellstone, who died almost three years ago on October 25, 2002 in a plane crash, along with his wife Sheila and six others, was the rarest of Senators--a man of principle, courage and passion. He fused progressive idealism with a stubbornly pragmatic politics.
Setting out in 1997 to "do everything I possibly can to start the national conversation" about the realities of poverty in America, Wellstone would have found these last days to be what he often called "a teaching moment." (He always remained the former Carleton college political science professor.) And Wellstone did travel the length and breadth of this country--as Robert Kennedy had done thirty years earlier, and as Eleanor Roosevelt did during the Great Depression--talking to the poor in towns, cities and counties coast to coast. He understood that "poverty has many faces." And he wanted to "reveal for many of [his] fellow citizens the face of poverty" as it existed at the end of the last century.
Wellstone would not have been shocked to see the poor and despairing faces millions of Americans saw on their TV screens in these last weeks. And while he would have been the first to deplore the moral scandal of such poverty in the world's richest nation, he would have quickly rolled up his sleeves to help rebuild America and the Gulf region. Wellstone understood that not only was it noble and right, but it was good and smart politics to fight on "behalf of good jobs, a living wage, good healthcare and good education."
He also understood that while we need a strong and activist government, he had spent enough time in Washington "and read enough history to know that [problems of poverty] will not be solved from the top. It was a combination of the civil rights movement and the activist movements of the sixties that generated our last truly national attack on the problems of poverty....[that] in a democracy significant social change comes from the bottom up, from an aroused opinion that forces our ruling institutions to do the right thing."
On this third anniversary of Senator Paul Wellstone's tragic death, many of us feel the absence of his energy, purpose and passion. Next week his supporters will unveil a memorial, located less than half a mile from where the airplane accident that killed him went down. As Bill Lofy, Wellstone Action! communications director, describes it, the memorial will be "a place of commemoration and reflection where people can come and learn about Paul and Sheila Wellstone, their lives and the lives of the people lost on the plane crash."
While the Wellstones respected reflection, they wouldn't have wanted too long a moment of silence. They would have been on the Senate floor, or in the Delta, helping with relief efforts, organizing, legislating. And they would have wanted us by their side, working to make this country live up to its unfulfilled promise.
As Wellstone wrote in The Nation, "I think we can do better. That is what Robert Kennedy always said. I think we can do better too. Won't you join me in the effort?"
(To join in the effort, and to support the future of progressive politics, consider a donation on this anniversary to Wellstone Action, the nonprofit, nonpartisan group set up by sons Mark and David Wellstone to train the next generation of progressive leaders.)
2005 The Nation