Jennings is the Executive Director of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley (CACLV), an organization that combats poverty in local communities. His career has spanned 32 years. South Side Initiative's Seth Moglen, who introduced Jennings at Bethlehem's town hall, called him an "enormous force for good" and "untiring advocate for social justice." His critics, however, deride him as a "poverty pimp" and "Price of the Poor."
According to Jennings, who just became a grandfather this weekend, we've become a nation of confused, frustrated and cynical people.
"We are polarized along geographic lines, political lines, racial lines, class lines, cultural, ethnic, religious, generational and gender lines," he posited.
"I'm sure that if someone claimed the Sun rises in the East, his or her antagonist along any of those dividing lines would strenuously argue otherwise, and the argument would include a mean-spirited, personal attack."The problem, as he sees it, is a "small but virulent and loud industry of radicals whose sense of how the world should work is mired in the nineteenth century's social Darwinism." He includes the tea party in this group, although he later conceded there are radicals on the other side of the spectrum, too.
To those who espouse less government, his retort is that "well-financed radicals" have been very effective at "depriving government of the necessary resources" that would make it work, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Using welfare as an example, Jennings calls it the "tried and true default wedge issue dug up by those who hate government." But he points out that, of the 647,232 people who live in the Lehigh Valley, only 7,000 of them (1%) receive any form of cash assistance. A family of three will get just $403 per month. There's been no increase in that amount since 1985. But there have been three recessions.
Jennings conceded that there are times when he feels like a failure, especially since the poverty rate has gone up in his 32-year battle against it. "But while I do let the bastards get me down, anger has been the fuel of my hell-bent, frenzied drive to fight back," he said.
"I just can't give up."
How would Jennings solve this increasing polarization? That, he admitted is where he falls short. He made a few suggestions like increased civic engagement, publicly funded campaigns, permitting people to own guns but not ammo.
"People call it a nanny state, but maybe we need to do a better job of being nannies," he said.
|Roger Hudak and Alan Jennings|
When the lecture was over, South Side Task Force Manager Roger Hudak proudly showed Jennings his Democratic T-shirt, claiming that is the answer. As Jennings is a tireless advocate for the poor, Hudak is a tireless advocate for Bethlehem's South Side. But unwittingly, Hudak proved Jennings' point.
The next Town Hall lecture, on October 30 at 7 PM, will feature James Peterson, Lehigh University's Director of the Africana Studies Program.