Geoffrey Canada's tireless organizing, advocacy, and visionary thinking in support of poor children and their families have caught the attention of Bill Clinton and Janet Reno--and made Canada a 1995 winner of a $250,000 Heinz Award. Born to a dirt-poor family in the South Bronx and educated at Bowdoin and Harvard, Canada is now the president and CEO of the New York-based Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families. He is the author of Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America (Beacon Press, 1995).
Q: How does the "Contract With America" affect children?
A: I don't think Americans have searched the fine print of the Contract when it comes to children. People think, because of a concerted effort by certain people and the media, that there is a group of Americans--mostly poor women and poor children--who are lazy and shiftless, and who want to live off taxpayers. They think that government has become so bloated that it lives just to feed itself, that it doesn't care about us as citizens--and that it gets in the way of us accomplishing our goals.
When you begin to examine the facts, you find that there are more working poor in this country than ever before, that when people talk about job creation in many cases it is low-wage, low-skill jobs, that the numbers of children who don't have health coverage are increasing, that for parents who want to work the biggest obstacles are childcare and health care.
You can't give a good three-second sound bite to America on how we're going to deal with these tough economic problems. So instead, we've really fed into self-interest and greed and said you can have a little bit of your taxes back and by taking money from these poor people, we can make them better. The rhetoric which suggests that by simply denying benefits to people we're going to increase their morale--there's no scientific evidence to support that.
Q: I've been thinking a lot about the demonization of the poor, and I keep asking myself if this is how Germany felt in the 1920s and 1930s.
A: [Rep.] Charlie Rangel [D-N.Y.] has said right out that this is how the Nazis got in. When I heard him say that for the first time, I said: "You know, Congressman, you may be a little extreme." But in my lifetime, I have never seen this country turn on anyone the way it's turning on the poor. Every level of government is pointing to these people and saying, "They're what's keeping us down."
Could this have been what it felt like during the time of the Nazis? I think there is at least one difference--people are fighting back and saying we need to do something about it. The problem is that the people at the highest elective office are not yelling nearly so loudly.
Q: The right maintains that welfare has been a failure, that it's not changing society, it's not transforming people.
A: Bad information. Most folks on welfare are on it for two years or less. In 70 to 80 percent of the cases, welfare does what it's supposed to do: It is a transition for a person who works and then loses his job. There is a small percentage of families who have remained on welfare one generation to the other. But you can't simply say the whole system is broke because of that.
In no case should we institute policies that punish the child for the sins of the parent, but that's where this debate is going--we're going to reduce the support that children get if the parent doesn't do x, y, z. All it's going to mean is that we're going to end up having to take children from parents, and spend much more money than we ever would have if they stayed on welfare.
Q: Everybody attacks single mothers, so we say, hey, that's wrong. But it's a trap because progressives can't stand up and say they're in favor of one-parent households. So what should they say?
A: My theory is it is so complicated raising a child, it is so overwhelming, it takes so much time and energy, that you have to do it as a tag team. Is there a role for males in bringing up children? Yes. Do we know what that is? Most don't. The real problem is not single women, it's men who walk away from their families and leave them without support emotionally and financially. That's really a man's issue and not a single woman's issue. Women tend to get blamed, but they didn't have these babies by themselves.
Q: When the right talks about the decline of morals, is there any truth in what they're saying?
A: People are looking for a sense of spirituality. I don't want to get this confused with religion. Many times on the left there's been ambivalence. I think we've been much too cautious around this issue of spirituality. We've allowed the right to take the issue of morality--all we mean by morality is that we want people to treat people decently. But no one wants to talk about it on the left. We have to say we want strong families. There's nothing wrong with that. We don't have to get trapped into a definition that marginalizes anybody.
On the right, they're yelling, "I have the truth, and I am right," and we're saying, "Well, this is complicated." If the only person saying "I have an answer" is someone on the right, there's a good chance we're going to lose more and more people who say: "I haven't heard any message but this one."
Q: How can we bring the country out from where it is now?
A: As a nation, we are indulging in a national denial of our responsibility. We have to become a society that again thinks that your problems are my problems, that if you're not doing well, I should feel obligated to do something about it. Instead, we're teaching the opposite. The government is the collective expression of our obligation, one to the other. You can't pull government out and leave it to the individual if they feel up to it. We all use the same roads, drink the same water. Government works for all of us. It ought to work for the less fortunate as well.
Q: Many liberals feel overwhelmed. Where should we begin?
A: If you try to handle this as an individual, you really will become overwhelmed. You'll feel like it's you against the federal government.
When I talked to a senior Republican, I said to him, "People are in favor of gun control--how come Congress doesn't respond to that?" He said, "The people who are for gun control are mildly for it, but the people from the NRA are rabid around this issue. They will work night and day to defeat you."
Democracy ain't a spectator sport. It takes time and energy over the long haul. When people do things that we don't think are right, we've got to write the letter and we've got to go visit those people. We have to go out and organize on a regular basis. We have to make all politics local.
Andrea Bernstein writes frequently about government and politics.