Dignity: A Modest Proposal

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. conceived of the Poor People’s Campaign as a way to bring the voices of the poor to Washington. D.C. It was one of those radical ideas conveniently memory-holed by conservatives in their annual one-day co-opting of Dr. King, but it was central to his efforts to bring a measure of economic justice to America. He never got there in person, thanks to an assassin’s bullet.

The debate over extending Vermont’s motel voucher program has made it clear we need a Poor People’s Campaign right here in Vermont, because it’s obvious that the voices of the poor need to be heard as loudly as any other in the halls of the Statehouse.

Well, to be fully accurate, one part of the debate has made that clear. It’s the part provided by Brenda Siegel, who’s been bringing the stories of voucher clients to our attention and, in so doing, forcing The Comfortable to feel a wee bit less comfy.

So, modest proposal: A lobbying organization which, for placeholder purposes, I’m calling “Dignity.” Anyone who does the actual work gets to take as little or as much of this idea as they want.

Most people are not as uncouth as Sen. Bobby Starr, who refers to voucher clients as “those people” and makes it clear that as far as he’s concerned, they are good-for-nothing layabouts who ought to get off their asses and out of “our” motel rooms and get themselves a damn job.

No, we’re not as uncouth as that. But the same attitudes permeate the debate over the voucher program in a way that wouldn’t be possible if the clients were part of the discussion.

Let’s take, for example, Gov. Phil Scott’s constant references to protecting Vermont’s “most vulnerable.”

That sounds kinda nice from inside the bubble, but it dehumanizes the clients and strips them of all agency. Their current vulnerability is only part of their identity. “Those people” are also far more skilled than most of us at the fine art of survival — because they have had to fight to survive. They have lived full lives. They have accomplished things. They have battled and scraped and fought through trauma beyond my relatively cosseted imagination. You learn a lot of stuff going through that.

If you’ve ever held down multiple low-wage jobs, you’ve developed scheduling skills out of dire necessity. If you have to make sure you keep your meds refrigerated or your oxygen tank charged up, then you know how to get through sticky situations. And you certainly can offer real-world knowledge about how to make these struggles easier to navigate.

So maybe, just maybe, these folks could offer valuable input on the programs intended to help them just as much as, say, business groups routinely offer on regulatory and tax policy. Instead, we have seen a process that involved Democratic lawmakers working alongside Scott administration officials while offering only token opportunity for housing advocates to be heard — and never even thinking of giving voucher clients a seat at the table until Siegel made it impossible for the clients to be ignored.

Call it Dignity, or call it what you will. Let’s give voice to those who’ve been silenced by the policymaking process. It will make our social service programs more effective, more humane, and who knows, maybe even less costly.

A modest proposal. Probably too much to ask for, but a guy can dream.


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