Chesson's choice


November 10, 1998, was a sunny day in Knoxville, Tennessee. Early in the morning, 12 sheriff’s deputies arrived at the home of Julia Chesson.

Chesson’s home was a small apartment in a cluster of plain brick buildings surrounded by a grassy park with tall shade trees – a subsidized housing development called College Homes, managed by Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation and occupied, until recently, primarily by black people.

The deputies ordered Chesson and her daughter to vacate and began gathering up their possessions to take to another housing development a few kilometres away. They did not do the moving with a great deal of care.

‘They tore up my waterbed and got bleach and salt all over my food,’ Chesson said. ‘They also wrapped my little girl’s stuff in two bed sheets and dragged them. They put holes in my sheets. Why would they want to do me this way, because I stand up for the poor? Somebody’s got to.’

This was not an ordinary eviction, but it was in some ways a typical confrontation between government officials and poor people over the nature of poverty. Chesson and her daughters were the last hold-outs, the bitter-enders, in a struggle over the future of College Homes. The Develop-ment Corporation wanted to evict tenants from all 320 apartments, tear the development down, and build 230 new units of housing for a mix of low- and middle-income families. The Chessons and four other families had defied orders to leave and filed a lawsuit to block the demolition, saying that poor and black families were being displaced to make room for white families with more money. (The new houses were expected to sell for between $30,000 and $85,000, while Chesson makes only $5.48 an hour working for the area’s school system.)

‘All they care about is the money,’ Chesson said. ‘It doesn’t benefit poor people.’ Residents demanded that instead of demolishing College Homes, the development should be sold to a tenant group or tenants be allowed to manage the property. But this was to be the last day of their protest. Several court decisions had gone against the protesters. By the end of the day, College Homes was ready to receive its demolition crew.

‘What we were fighting for was to get our youth off the streets, to get out of poverty, and to get control of our own community,’ explained Chesson. ‘Now I’m out here in my new neighborhood registering people to vote. Because when they’re done with one housing project they’ll come for the next.’

The solution proposed for the poverty of College Homes seemed to assume that poor people and their communities are the problem. But Chesson and others believe the real problem is that poor people lack the power to run their own lives and improve conditions in their communities.

A central experience of poor people is simply being pushed around

There are 35.5 million people who make up the 13 per cent of the population defined as poor. The official definition of poverty used in the US takes no account of the political powerlessness that Chesson is trying to undo. Nor does it take account of the cultural traits associated with poverty by many governmental policy-makers. Instead, poverty is officially defined as a strictly economic deprivation, based on specific thresholds set for families of different sizes. In 1997 the threshold for a family of one adult and two children was set at $12,931. The average poor family of this size received only $6,329.

Poor people are not a random cross- section of the population, of course, because poverty does not come randomly. You are more likely to be poor if you are black, if you are Latino, if you are a woman, or if you are under 18 years old. In 1997, the poverty rate for black individuals was 26.5 per cent and that for Hispanic people (this is the word favored by the US Census Bureau for Latinos) was 27 per cent. Women had a poverty rate of 15 per cent in 1993, compared to 10 per cent for men, and the rate for children was 23 per cent.

Families in poverty

The significance of these figures becomes clearer when you look at how poverty hits families. In 1993, families with single mothers had a poverty rate of 52 per cent, compared to 16 per cent for all families. This high rate of poverty happens because women are concentrated in low-paid jobs and they provide much of the childcare in the US without being paid at all.

The poverty rate in the US since 1970 has been relatively constant, but this conceals a very significant change for the worse. Poverty has become much more concentrated geographically. In other words, poor people today are more likely to live in poor neighborhoods, defined as those where 40 per cent or more of the people are poor. This growth of concentrated poverty is alarming because it is likely to expose poor people to many of the worst of the social dimensions of poverty – crime, low-quality education, lack of opportunities for young people, a toxic environment, and loss of political power and influence. It also makes the realities of poverty less visible to better-off people, who may become more willing to accept governmental policies that punish poor people.

In the 1960s, however, there was a rapid reduction of poverty which suggests that real change can happen when government takes action in response to politically mobilized poor people.

The question is: how can poor people and their allies bring about another situation like that one? Movements springing up around the United States offer several different answers.

Many of these new movements are linked to issues of self-determination and identity for particular groups of poor people. For example, Julia Chesson and other tenants of College Homes could draw on a long tradition of groups of poor black Americans demanding autonomous control over their own neighborhoods. In many other cities, groups of black, Latino, and Asian-American low-wage workers have organized through workers’ centers, which deal with workplace and sometimes also community issues from a culturally specific perspective. Mothers who receive government assistance are co-ordinating across the country, arguing that their work raising children deserves both respect and economic support.

These movements have been responsible for some of the most innovative organizing in the United States, and they have been particularly effective at exposing the political dimension of poverty: the fact that a central experience of poor people is simply being pushed around. They have also produced many of the most militant grassroots activists fighting poverty.

At the same time, other groups have pioneered new bridge-building approaches to anti-poverty organizing. These efforts do not necessarily produce the same level of militancy as the more identity-based campaigns, but they do have the advantage of presenting a more united front to business and government decision-makers and offering a more coherent big-picture view of the economic roots of poverty.

Often the bridge-building takes a very direct form. Several groups around the US, including the Knoxville-based Tennessee Industrial Renewal Network (TIRN), sponsor exchanges between North American and Mexican industrial workers who work for the same transnational corporations. These trips combat the idea that it is Mexican workers rather than employers who are subjecting North American workers to poverty by taking jobs away. They also build support in both countries for political initiatives that benefit all workers, such as the campaigns against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other international agreements that increase employers’ power at the expense of workers.

Cross-border organizers generally see globalization and the political might of the transnational corporations as an important cause of poverty in all countries. The argument is particularly compelling in the US, where very low unemployment rates have for several years failed to raise wages substantially or lower the poverty rate.

‘I think that until everyone here and everyone there get together, the big companies will continue to take their jobs to South-East Asia or wherever they can get the cheapest labor,’ said Barbara Knight, a TIRN activist and former Philips Consumer Electronics worker who has visited Philips workers in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

Living wage

The fastest-growing type of coalition- building projects are living-wage campaigns. These bring together labor, community and church organizations to press for local laws that set a minimum wage higher than the US federal minimum. They are targeted at certain local-government employers, or companies which hold contracts with, or receive subsidies or tax concessions from, local governments.

In Knoxville, a living-wage campaign has emerged from a series of economic literacy workshops and interviews with organizational leaders conducted by TIRN. The campaign is run democratically by a committee that includes leaders and staff of a poor people’s organization, a student organization, and several labor unions including the local arm of the national labor federation. The campaign also involves a number of church ministers, who often play an important role in grassroots initiatives in the United States.

‘We did a listening project four years ago, talking about what it would take for poor and working people to have more power over the economy here,’ said Bob Becker, a staff organizer for TIRN. ‘One of the things we heard was that groups of poor and working people didn’t know each other, and they need to. So this is about more than a living wage. It’s about building power for poor and working people in this town through coalitions.’

If Knoxville’s living-wage campaign is successful, several hundred workers will receive a substantial wage increase immediately, and more workers will benefit if the initial increases affect the wage market in particular job categories. But more importantly, the campaign will have demonstrated that wage levels are affected by political power, and it will have created relationships between working-class groups that are often divided, such as union workers and non-union poor people. This will have the potential to affect future policy decisions.

Solutions to Issues of Concern to Knoxvillians (SICK) is a community organization made up primarily of poor people. Michelle Nored, a low-wage worker and welfare recipient is a member of SICK. She believes that jobs are crucial. But so are the misconceptions others hold about poor people: ‘The demonization of the poor is the most atrocious, the assumption that poor people are dishonest and criminal and the source of everything bad about society,’ she said. ‘The living-wage campaign gives us a chance to show how the real force in poverty is simply lack.’

Living-wage campaigns have already won wage increases in many large cities, including Baltimore, Milwaukee and Los Angeles. Some of the increases have been small, but the trend seems to be towards higher minimums. The Knoxville campaign is proposing a minimum of $9.50 per hour if health benefits are provided and $11.00 per hour if they are not.

Most important, the campaigns are beginning to create a nationwide climate in which it is less unusual for unions and poor people’s groups to work together. The phrase ‘living wage’ has begun to penetrate the national consciousness and to be heard on the TV news. If these trends continue, they will not only lead to more effective coalitions, they will also decrease the isolation of groups like Julia Chesson’s and make it more difficult for institutions like Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation to define poverty as something wrong with poor people.

_*Tom Waters* is an organizer and writer in Knoxville, Tennessee. He has worked with SICK, with TIRN’s living-wage campaign, and with Save Our Cumberland Mountains and the Commission on Religion in Appalachia in rural East Tennessee._

For information contact: Tennessee Industrial Renewal Network (TIRN), 1515 East Magnolia Ave, Suite 403, Knoxville, Tennessee 37917. Tel: +1 423 637 1576. e-mail: [email protected]

New Internationalist issue 310 magazine cover This article is from the March 1999 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Get a free trial »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop