Remembering an Anti-Hunger Champion: George McGovern

October 23, 2012

When was the last time anyone talked about poverty in America?

George McGovern’s passing marks the end of an era. While most people remember McGovern as the anti-Vietnam War candidate who lost every state except Massachusetts in the 1972 election, his work to fight hunger around the world and at home was marked by the same dedication and compassion as his anti-war fight.

In an interview about George McGovern with the PBS Newshour, Gary Hart (former Senator, campaign manager for McGovern's ‘72 campaign, and a disgraced Presidential hopeful caught in some “Monkey Business”) said this:

"All we hear about today from candidates of both parties is the middle class. When was the last time anyone talked about poverty in America?

And we still have one in five children in poverty. We still have 20 percent of children with no health care at all. There is a serious problem of poverty in America. But neither party wants to talk about poor people anymore. It's all about the middle class.

And I think the reason for that, frankly—and I spent a lot of my lifetime on this—is, you cannot have a New Deal and Great Society without an expanding economy. So the first thing is to get income into the hands of working people and middle-income people. When that happens and when they have economic security, then they're much more willing to care for and pay for the concerns of the needy."

I think Hart gave a great analysis of this year's campaign rhetoric and the lack of attention to poverty.

It is what Celinda Lake, Democratic pollster, used to say all the time when I was working with her in the early 2000s: You have to focus on the middle class if you want to have any impact on people's politics.

Her thinking was that most middle class people think of the major social division as between them and the poor, and they blame the poor for using up all the public resources. Until you can establish that the real division is between the rich and the middle class, with the rich getting most of the goodies, you cannot succeed in gaining support for anti-poverty efforts.

After a decade, maybe McGovern’s vision, and Lake’s analysis, are beginning to have an impact. We haven’t heard much about poverty in this Presidential campaign, but we have heard a lot about families struggling to find jobs or struggling to make ends meet.

The line between the struggles of the middle class and the wealthiest taxpayers who get the bulk of the tax breaks is being drawn more clearly, and the fears of middle-class families that they might end up falling into poverty instead of rising into wealth are stronger.

Perhaps anti-poverty efforts akin to those that have been successful in other wealthy countries will come. Maybe, as Hart says, it will take getting the economy growing strong again to get us there. Like McGovern, I am forever an optimist—but that’s what keeps us going!


Related SparkAction commentary:

Still "Other", Still Invisible: American Poverty 50 Years On by Alison Beth Waldman



Jan Richter is Editor emeritus of the SparkAction SparkUpdate. She was previously Outreach Specialist for Connect for Kids. Reach her at jan[at]


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Jan Richter