Thirty-six years ago, then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo took center stage at the 1984 Democratic National Convention and delivered perhaps the most forceful of all plainly partisan speeches in American history. With all the attention that his son, the current Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has received during the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s easy to forget that the elder Cuomo once held the public’s attention even tighter.
As both parties gather for their conventions and seek the right tone in rebuilding our economy, they’d be smart to watch that speech again. They’d be reminded of how central work is to the ultimate American ambition and how unifying it is as a political message.
In the last five years, many barrels of ink have been spilled on the right and left about forgotten workers in forgotten places. That’s why you need not sympathize with the substance of Cuomo’s speech to appreciate that his message of two Americas captured our current cultural flashpoint 30 years ahead of time.
With widespread lockdowns, the urgency has only grown.
That word — urgency –i s key. And it’s what Cuomo got right. He cradled his listeners, closer to whispering than yelling, as if squeezing each of our arms with quiet urgency: “There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces that you don’t see … Maybe, maybe, Mr. President, if you visited some more places; Maybe if you went to Appalachia where some people still live in sheds.” Cuomo was building, almost shaking with the knowledge of where he would go next.
“Maybe if you went to Lackawanna where thousands of unemployed steel workers wonder why we subsidized foreign steel.” His eyes widened.
“Maybe — maybe, Mr. President, if you stopped in at a shelter in Chicago and spoke to the homeless there.” He slowed down and, at that speed, indignation filled his sad eyes.
Why does the speech still stand out? It’s simple — Cuomo was eloquently angry about something worth being angry about. After all, in 1967, the poverty rate in the United States was 14%. In 1984, the rate was about 14%. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the lowest unemployment rate since 1969 and the strongest job market for racial minorities in American history, the rate remained at about 12%.
America has spent tens of trillions of dollars in anti-poverty programs. Our national economy has grown to be more than 27 times bigger than it was in 1965. Yet, poverty persists at comparable rates. It’s America’s greatest moral challenge in domestic policy since Jim Crow.
Policymakers should look back at Cuomo’s emotion — it feels like he went to Appalachia and Lackawanna and Chicago. And his message — that these Americans simply want an opportunity to work to lift themselves up — is more important now than ever.
At the Democratic National Convention this week, we can expect passionate platitudes about income inequality, but we probably won’t hear any acknowledgement that government welfare programs that do not prioritize returning to work actually hold back progress.
And next week, at the Republican National Convention, we can only hope that policymakers demonstrate the emotion our government’s role in perpetuating poverty rightly deserves — contempt.
The federal government and most states continue to perpetuate cycles of dependency in service to a permanent administrative state. Beneficiaries have become “clients” of agencies desperate to advance their own budgets rather than the citizens they serve. No American of any political stripe should ever accept that as a fact of life with which we must learn to live.
Some express doubt, often grounded in racism, that some groups can keep up with modest work requirements, but that others can’t. For anyone to be so willfully blind to evidence and common sense is more than surprising. It is embarrassing. It is toxic. And it is unworthy of a free people.
And it compels more than just compassion for the poor. Those mired in poverty in Appalachia and Lackawanna and Chicago need leaders who understand that work is the way out, who are willing to squeeze arms with quiet urgency, and who are able to stand behind a podium and shake the nation with a vision for where we can go next.