From War on Poverty to War on Poor

November 16, 2013 

By Al Smith

Four days after the last books have been signed at today's Kentucky Book Fair, the University of Kentucky will honor the legacy of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence and its longtime executive director, the late Robert F. Sexton, who died in 2010.

Next Wednesday at the Young Library, UK President Eli Capiluto and a few others will speak at a simple program to accept the files and papers from the committee's 30 years of advocacy for better education. Sadly, whatever positive words are said about libraries, literacy and learning will but sound a whisper against the prevailing angry rhetoric that attacks all of the above nationally.

When the country's right-wing extremists hammer at "big government," they insist that schools are no business of Washington. They may not know or care for the consequences, but Americans who value education recognize the damage.

Education, said Edward F. Prichard, the legendary political figure of the last century, is "the path to a larger life." It's not the dirt trail back to a one-room schoolhouse.

Whether Tea Partiers, tax-hating, self-styled conservatives or opportunist politicians, the extremists sue to roll back revenues for libraries, scoff at early-childhood education, cheer cuts to food stamps, suppress child care for low-income workers, oppose a minimum wage hike and pray for health care reform to fail. That's the A list.

Privatizing public schools and social security, blocking tax reform and "freeing up" Wall Street and the big banks are the B list.

Fifty years ago, after President John F. Kennedy, who initiated federal funding for libraries, was assassinated in Dallas, a shocked country gave the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, civil rights and other progressive legislation he sought for a Great Society.

Too many of today's red-state leaders represent voters consumed with a dislike for President Barack Obama, similar to 1963 Dallas which seethed with hatred of JFK. Johnson was a "flawed giant," as one historian says, but others rank him near great for his War on Poverty. What now — a War on the Poor?

In Kentucky, where business leaders and the governor argue the merits of early-childhood education, we do serve 35,000 children in preschool and Head Start programs. But 25,000 kids are left out. Cuts to child-care subsidies leave 8,700 working poor families with 14,000 children in Kentucky ineligible for care while their parents work. What then?

Untroubled about sending hungry kids to school, reactionary forces in Washington have cut food stamps for 875,000 Kentuckians. Over three-fifths of food stamp recipients are children, or adults living with children.

One in 10 Kentucky youths have had three or more traumatic experiences before age nine, a rate tied for highest in the U.S. Half are from low-income families. But who cares?

"It's about kids" could be the motto of the Prichard Committee's struggle for accountability and other mandates for what Prichard and Sexton called a "seamless web" of education "from the womb to the tomb."

No longer a place of barefoot feudists, Kentucky abounds with champions for education — in schools, factories and at literacy centers that tutor kids after school, train parents to read to infants and help with homework, and show aspiring writers how to compose books.

Our stellar bookstores partner with book clubs, a women's writers conference and a University Press of Kentucky that sent 29 authors to the book fair. Experts fret because our kids lag on skills needed in the global work place, and are not always the healthiest.

Kentucky schools climbed into the middle ranks of states tested in the years of the Prichard Committee and the Kentucky Education Reform Act. But the widening poverty gap is screwing up our dreams for a better Kentucky. Who are the new leaders to fix that problem, and how will they do it?

Al Smith of Lexington is founding host of KET's Comment on Kentucky and was federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission.

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