Decades-Old ‘War on Poverty’ Isn’t Over : Television: Henry Hampton re-examines the issue at a time when Congress is focusing on welfare reform. The five-hour PBS series premieres Monday.
“America’s War on Poverty.” The very title of Henry Hampton’s new five-hour PBS series, which begins Monday, is enough to conjure up big-spending, bleeding-heart images, if not rile “Contract With America” conservatives and fans of Rush Limbaugh.
The “unconditional war on poverty” that President Lyndon B. Johnson inaugurated in January, 1964, was his first war--before Vietnam rapidly blasted onto the national consciousness and ate up government money. Yet the anti-poverty crusade lasted a decade through 1973 and the presidency of Richard Nixon. As Hampton’s series points out, all but one of a panoply of anti-poverty programs, under Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity, still exist in one form or other, including Project Head Start and legal aid groups such as California Rural Legal Assistance.
For Hampton, 55, the acclaimed executive producer of “Eyes on the Prize” (1987), the sequel “Eyes on the Prize II” (1990) and “The Great Depression” (1993), “Poverty” represents the last of a topic trilogy of documentaries treating the great social movements of 20th-Century America.
“It’s a logical follow to ‘Eyes’ because many of the people who had been involved in the civil rights movement moved on into the war on poverty,” explains Hampton by phone from Blackside Inc. in Boston. Among those he cites are former NAACP leader Roy Wilkins; poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, who had been known as LeRoi Jones; and Marian Wright Edelman, now head of the Children’s Defense Fund and a prime challenger of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) for advocating, as a solution for children whose families are denied welfare, putting them in orphanages.
And, of course, there’s Martin Luther King Jr., who, Hampton notes, “at great personal risk to himself and the (civil rights) movement, took on poverty and the anti-war movement. . . . Johnson was furious with him about the war (Vietnam) . . . .” The series begins on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
But “Poverty” deals mostly with the uncelebrated, from poor people in Appalachia to Head Start mothers in Mississippi, from “Model Cities” activists in Newark to agricultural workers in California, and on to welfare mothers in New York who say they aren’t ashamed to be poor and on welfare.
With the GOP electoral sweep and congressional focus on welfare reform, is this the most felicitous time for a series on poverty?
Hampton thinks it is, precisely because of that focus.
“My fondest hope,” he says, “is to resurface the issue, and re-surface it in a way that’s not pejorative. To take it away from talk radio and try to bring it into a discourse of respect and positive intentions. I really think that people have used it in a destructive way, because the poor really don’t have a clear constituency. They don’t have a lobbying effort for them.
“So, inevitably, they are the people who get muscled,” notes Hampton. “The poor are not without responsibility here. They can’t get a free pass. They have to live up to some of the same rules that we (do), but they have a certain circumstance which makes it very hard.”
Indeed, there’s a telling moment in Episode 5 when some U.S. Senate wives try to live for one week on the 23 cents per meal allowed under Nixon’s proposed family assistance plan. According to Bethine Church (her husband, Frank, was a Democrat from Idaho): “You . . . would have to be a Home Ec major in order to be able to figure out enough Vitamin C in a welfare budget.”
Mixing footage from the era with “witness” interviewees--those for and against the poverty program, and those within it who battle for turf--Hampton’s work is historic rather than polemic. “I won’t pretend my heart in all these things (isn’t) with people who are poor,” he adds, “but I don’t deal with it in romantic terms. I don’t skew the history.”
But does he worry that this is precisely the kind of series that could feed the hue and cry against public funding for public broadcasting?
“It may, " Hampton says, “but this is why public television should exist. It may be self-serving to my own work, but I really believe this is exactly the reason public television is so important. . . .”
It’s not just “music or celebrity-driven” programming, insists Hampton, the sort of stuff that more readily draws corporate backers. Indeed the $3.8-million “Poverty” series drew no corporate money. He laughs. "(Imagine) if I walked in your front door and said I got a great series on poverty.”
The bulk of funding came from the Ford Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. PBS and the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting awarded $500,000.
As “Poverty” points out, money is power. As much as Vietnam and the 1968 assassinations of King and Robert F. Kennedy, the conflict over who gets what helped kill the anti-poverty war, stirring anger even among some Democratic mayors. “When you start giving money directly to people, you are bouncing around the very notion of power relationships. I don’t think anybody really fully understood that . . . .”
Yet, for Hampton, power to the poor also triggered the war’s biggest success--people who became leaders because of it, whether Mississippi parents who became Head Start teachers and administrators or the Newark poor who learned to run federally funded services for the poor. “We see people who were nowhere near active, they were struggling against the odds,” Hampton noted. “It touched people’s lives. It empowered them to believe that they could have a say in their own future.”
As for his own future, Hampton is exploring commercial television. A week ago Friday, he had breakfast at Norman Lear’s house. He’d like to do a dramatic series. “I’ve got the idea and the idea of the characters, but I need somebody who’s what they refer to in Hollywood as an ‘ablest’ writer. I’d like to get someone like David Mamet.”
* “America’s War on Poverty” airs Monday-Wednesday at 9 p.m. on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15 and at 8 p.m. on KVCR-TV Channel 24.