Tuesday, January 22, 2013

South Bronx is just as important as Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall

It is lovely to watch a US President taking the oath of office and not be scared. The feeling of dread I experienced in 1981 and 2001 when Reagan and the younger Bush took office was not pleasant. While Barack Obama has not been perfect, his heart is generally in the right place. His achievements in his first term are all the more remarkable when you consider that he faced a Congress full of some of the most right wing, conservative Republicans we've seen in our lifetimes whose sole aim was to thwart his every move.

Obama's inaugural speech was stirring and inspiring to liberal ears. His main theme was that every American should have the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness on which the nation was founded.
For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law  –-  -- for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.
He talked about how the "most evident of truths, that all of us are created equal....guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall." It's strange to think that a strong declaration in favour of gay rights by the "leader of the free world" is seen as remarkable. All of this is great stuff and he was right to mention those places were so pivotal in developing equal rights. There is another place beginning with S, though, which symbolises action required to tackle another great barrier to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. South Bronx is the poorest Congressional District in the US.

While I'm glad to hear politicians embrace the prospect of equal rights, they are relatively inexpensive for a Government or Parliament with a majority in favour to implement. Even David Cameron is in favour of equal civil marriage. Developing a strategy which will lift people from appalling poverty is so much harder because it involves a huge amount of political will to put the resources in to do it. The US and UK are, despite the talk of deficits and debts, among the most affluent countries in the world yet at the same time as Obama was speaking, the UK Parliament was debating a measure that will cut benefits for the poorest here.

To give Obama credit, he did recognise the need to tackle poverty:
 For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.

We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.  We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm.  The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us.
But I found this line depressing:
We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else.
If you grow up cold, or hungry, in poor housing, you don't have the same life chances as everyone else. That's the simple truth. Why do we accept that people should be born into bleak poverty at all? While I  realise we can't change everything overnight, all politicians need to raise their sights and get more ambitious about eradicating poverty. For Liberal Democrats, this is a core part of our values. Our membership cards say that we seek to create a fair, free and open society where no-one is enslaved by poverty, ignorance and conformity. Obamacare across the Atlantic and raising the tax threshold and building more affordable housing here are good things but are nowhere near enough. The least we should be aiming for is that everyone has enough to eat and a warm home that meets their needs. Whilst it's fine to give ourselves a pat on the back for small successes along the way, we can't afford to lose a sense of urgency about the rest of the journey.

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