The first thing I learned when I went to work in President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty 55 years ago was this: Whatever is bad for the well off is always much worse for the poor. We see this every day now, here in Maine as elsewhere, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant economic woes.

One wonders whether the seemingly intractable poverty situation might not be better now if the War on Poverty hadn’t been destroyed just a few years after I joined it by the minions of President Richard M. Nixon.

Was it a perfect answer to the horrors of poverty? Of course not. Were there glitches and missteps? Certainly. But were positive actions taken by caring people who truly wanted to wipe out this basic societal evil? And did things begin to improve for the poor? Absolutely.

There was Head Start, the Job Corps, Upward Bound, VISTA (Volunteers in Service To America), Community Action and many other programs to give poor Americans housing, education, job training and to teach them their civil rights and how to responsibly give voice to their needs and grievances.

What has been the outcome of cruelly shutting down these opportunities? Of killing hope? Hunger, homelessness, children by the millions going hungry day after day. Billionaires and political desperadoes continuing to blame the poor for their poverty (remember Reagan’s “welfare queens” and Clinton’s promise to “change welfare as we know it”?).

Amassing fortunes and the resulting greed seem to reign in America. Companies worth billions underpay or lay off workers. Communities give tax breaks and funding to corporations to build huge warehouses employing low wage people, while dithering about affordable housing and equal opportunity for the poor and lower middle classes. Religious leaders ignore biblical injunctions against the evil of poverty, while raking in millions to build huge edifices dedicated to themselves.

Meanwhile, parents cannot find jobs to feed their hungry families. Upward mobility, once America’s proud boast, is largely gone, except for the already well-to-do. Tax breaks abound for the ultra-rich amid talk of weakening Social Security, health care and other programs for the needy.

The poor and underclasses, especially among the minorities, suffer and die in ungodly numbers from the coronavirus, compared to the more well off. Neighborhoods of the homeless and poor are hotbeds of infection and death. These forgotten Americans, including some here in Maine, are prisoners, unable to escape their despair, trapped by the ruthlessness of a society that largely doesn’t give a damn about them.

Does evil in one of its worst forms exist here in the “cradle of liberty”? Ask any poor person.

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