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Published on Saturday, August 5, 2000 in the Philadelphia Inquirer
Economic Justice Requires Unified Poor, Middle-Class
by Roberta Spivak
Three messages have competed for the public's attention during the Republican National Convention. The first is the R2K network's urgent but diffuse call for radical social change. Second is the "feel-good" promise of "compassionate conservatism" celebrated by the mostly white, well-heeled delegates at the First Union Center.

Third, and, I believe, most important was the focus on the nation's "wealth and poverty gap," highlighted by the Shadow Convention at the Annenberg Center across town. It is a gap, according to former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, that has led to a "two-tiered society"; a society that, in 1999, spawned 268 billionaires and 34.5 million people living below the poverty line; a society in which the top 1 percent of households own more assets than the bottom 95 percent, and in which one in every five children is poor.       Many Americans' willingness to tolerate that gap is a "sin," according to evangelical Christian minister Ron Sider - "a damnable affront to Almighty God." How to close that gap was the Shadow Convention's main theme. While the affinity groups in the streets called for anarchism and an end to corporate globalization and capitalism, the goals of the community activists in the Annenberg Center were more concrete: living-wage bills, a push for universal health care, increased access to a college education and job training, equitable funding for inner-city and suburban schools.

Implementing these reforms would amount to a social revolution that would benefit both working-class and poor Americans - the groups most harmed by economic globalization, and the groups the mostly young white activists in the streets claimed to represent.

As organizers evaluate what succeeded and what did not in the streets of Philadelphia, a key focus should be on bridging that gap. Protesters should be commended for challenging the GOP's pretense that all is well in America, but they need to rethink the strategy of trying to disrupt or "shut down" a city. In Philadelphia, at least, that strategy clearly lost the public relations battle, mainly inconveniencing local drivers, the maintenance worker whose car was vandalized, the workers who had to scrub "Free Mumia" graffiti from the Municipal Building, and a working-class police force.

Rather than simply venting anger and frustration, progressives need to ask how we can work effectively to help "reconstruct a social compact that pulls together the two Americas," the goal of a new alliance of low-income and working-class economic justice groups. What if all the energy spent on organizing Unity 2000 had gone instead into organizing dialogues between, say, groups of moderate-leaning Republican women and activists from Project Home, Kensington Welfare Rights Union, the Norris Square Neighborhood Project and other community groups? Perhaps the delegate who reportedly sneered "They're all on drugs" as the March for Human Economic Rights passed by his hotel window is beyond redemption, but certainly all comfortably-off Americans are not.

"The poor know what they need," said Carol Hemmingway of the community-organizing group ACORN. "When was the last time you saw a think tank in a poor neighborhood?"

"Let's get real," said Eugene Rivers of the 10-Point foundation. "How do we support black people independently organizing for themselves?" Rivers called for two parallel movements, one led by the poor and another by progressive allies with a new vision.

I believe the best hope for challenging the GOP's mean-spirited agenda lies in groups like the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support (, a coalition of economic-justice groups from 65 cities led by low-income women themselves, supported by middle-class allies who reject the inequities of a two-tiered America.

Roberta Spivak lives and writes in Philadelphia.

Copyright 2000 Philadelphia Newspapers


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