The shortest war in American history, the bitter joke goes? It was the war on poverty. It ended almost as soon as President Lyndon Johnson declared it, abandoned as the nation came apart over segregation, civil rights and Vietnam.

In Chapel Hill on Monday, there was a Rashomon moment as progressives wrestled with how North Carolina has dealt with poverty in the years since LBJ. Some lauded the state’s “great consensus” in favor of good schools and moderate policies to help the poor while notas in other old Confederacy stateslosing conservative business leaders to the Republican Party. Others saw in the same set of facts an enduring, endemic poverty, especially in rural counties, that a compromised Democratic Party has barely budged.

Well, as Anita Brown-Graham said quietly, both stories are true. Poverty in North Carolina doesn’t look the same today as it did in the ’60s, said Brown-Graham, executive director of the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University. But while living conditions are better, the policies of the last half-century were never meant to erase inequality, she said. Indeed, the gaps that existed between rich and poor, and black and white, arguably are worse now given the way globalization is shredding even middle-class jobs.

Definitions of poverty differ, with some Republicans in the General Assembly’s new leadership quick to argue, said Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of NC Policy Watch, that anyone with a DVD player can’t be that poor.

Yes they can, said former UNC president Bill Friday, and 1 million North Carolinians are poorincluding one in four of our state’s children, and one in three black and Hispanic children. Which is why, Friday told the 350 of us who attended this “North Carolina Summit: Progress and Economic Justice in a Time of Crisis,” putting poverty back on the public agenda is the most important task progressives have before them.

Friday was a teenager in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, when all three mills in his hometown of Dallas, N.C., shut down. “No one had anything,” he said. But even then, the poor knew who they werethey were the ones on the outside looking in. Friday quoted a story:

“Poverty is like being on the edge of good things going on. You are never allowed to join in. You don’t ask even for events that are free. You stand in the shadows and accept, and that’s the worst poverty of allaccepting. For, you see, poverty is the color of a bruise. It’s a birthmark on your soul.”

The summit was hosted by UNC’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, a program started to fit the aspirations of presidential candidate John Edwards and now under the new management of director Gene Nichol, the dynamic former law school dean.

Not only is ending poverty not on the public agenda today, Nichol said, the eroding American dream has politicians pointing their fingersand their budget knivesat the poor and the programs that help them. “These are not normal times, they are not simple times, they are not acceptable times,” Nichol said.

If the times were simple, a simple solution to poverty is at hand, spelled out by William (Sandy) Darity, a Duke University professor of economics and African-American studies. Darity said the federal government should establish a National Investment Employment Corps and guarantee work, at a living wage or above, to every adult who wants it.

There’s plenty of useful work to be done rebuilding the nation’s infrastructureroads, bridges, railroadsand in the health care, child care and homeland security fields, Darity argued. Assuring that everyone has a job would cut welfare and prison costs dramatically while boosting local economies and state and federal tax revenues. Darity proposed a minimum salary of about $20,000 a year, plus benefits. But even if the average cost per job were $50,000, he said, employing every one of the nation’s Great Recession-generated army of 15 million unemployed would be comparable, at $750 billion a year, to the cost of the Wall Street bailout.

Because the current climate is anything but receptive to an idea like Darity’s, though, the challenge for progressives is to blunt an unrelenting attack from the political right while mounting a movement powerful enough to turn the tide in favor ofactually, defining the “what” is part of the challenge. Is it economic justice? Racial equality? Gender equality? Ending poverty?

American history, said the Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, is replete with the ways that the rich have persuaded everyone else that what’s good for Wall Street is good for them too. Slavery, Jim Crow, anti-women, anti-union and pro-corporation laws add up, Barber said, to “a legacy of government-created poverty” that most Americans today accept as just the ways things have to be.

Unraveling that history and exposing it is part of the task, Barber said.

A related part, said Jarvis Hall, director of the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at N.C. Central University, is conveying a positive message of change to the vast electorate that came out for Barack Obama in 2008 but is back on the political sidelines watching in despair.

As the conferees debated how to mount such a movement, three points seemed crucial:

  • First, tell good people stories. Narrative, not data, moves public opinion, said Michael Jones, a fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. Progresssives, Jones said, suffer from an “Enlightenment Age hangover,” convinced that if they just assemble a few more killer facts, people’s minds will change. But what changes the public mind, Jones said, is a well-told story, like Ronald Reagan’s fictional welfare queens. Progressives’ stories don’t have to be fiction, Jones said. But they do need a plotlike who’s killing the economy? and some villains and heroes to reach the part of the brain that neuroscience tells us is where we store our basic identity.

    Good stories, Jones added, will change the “face” of poverty that the right wing has embedded in the public consciousness of a shiftless person, usually black, who’s poor by choice. A consistent narrative about rural whites, working moms and displaced dads of every ethnicity “is the first thing that should happen,” he argued.
  • Second, defend the public sector. Since LBJ, the prevailing narrative about government has been that it’s wasteful, inefficient and corrupt. Conference speakers described a wide array of government-funded programs, many run by nonprofit organizations, that are helping to lift the poor out of povertyand that are under attack as right-wing politicians seek to defund not just the programs but the organizational infrastructure of anti-poverty efforts.
  • Third, persuade Americans that we’re all in it together. In his powerful keynote, Barber said that since Roman times, when Jesus preached a gospel of helping the poor and was crucified for it, politicians have defended the status quo on the basis that if the poor were helped, most people would be worse off. The task today, Barber said, is to “expose the hypocrisy of the tax-cut crowd” and illustrate how policies that favor the rich hurt everybody else. “We refuse to see that we are all interrelated,” Barber thundered. “But we cannot live in isolation. If you ignore those at the bottom, eventually the whole enterprise will decay.”

Barber said that the NAACP and other organizations in the HK on J coalition will launch a bus tour of eastern North Carolina this spring to expose the conditions of poverty and put new faces on the poor. He invited supporters to ride with them and said details will be announced soon.