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Sunday, July 14, 2013
When Keith Kilty visited Japan in 2003, he was struck by the invisibility of poverty in that country. Public housing developments were clean and orderly, with flower pots in doorways and window sills.
The only evidence of economic distress were blue tents, made from large bags handed out by the authorities to the homeless, that dotted some parks and riverbanks.
While poverty is more visible in the United States, Kilty, a professor of social work at Ohio State University, recognized that our understanding of it is often clouded by stereotypes.
His experience in Japan convinced him that he should create a documentary, turning the camera on America’s poor and giving them a forum to talk about their experiences.
“The poor, in addition to being invisible, are rarely heard,” he said in an interview last week.
Kilty is among the featured speakers for “Poverty Today: Challenges and Opportunities,” a symposium being hosted on July 19 by the Cabell Brand Center for Global Poverty and Resource Sustainability Studies and the Shepherd Program at Washington and Lee University.
The event is inspired by the upcoming 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, and it’s free to the public.
The symposium begins at 8:30 a.m. at the Roanoke Higher Education Center, and culminates with a roundtable discussion beginning at 1:30 p.m. Registration is requested at cabellbrandcenter.org.
“We felt after 50 years it was time to reflect and evaluate what we’re currently doing and look at new ideas,” said Risa Pesapane, executive director of the Cabell Brand Center.
Kilty is best known for his documentary “Ain’t I a Person,” used by many organizations as part of training programs for volunteers who want to work with poor people but who have had little contact with the truly indigent.
He began interviewing people for the project in 2007 after his retirement from Ohio State, and spent four years putting together the feature-length film.
The men and women in the documentary are remarkably open about the terrible conditions they have experienced. One woman described waking before dawn each day to chase away rats before rousing her daughter. But they also share their struggles to complete their educations and get jobs.
“The major myth is the idea that the poor aren’t willing to work, that they don’t try hard enough, that they are responsible for their circumstances,” Kilty said.
Kilty grew up in a working-class family. His father worked two jobs most of the time, but made enough to own a home in Wabash, Ind.
As a college student in the 1960s, Kilty became interested in poverty issues and later lived in New York City working for a halfway house for adolescents coming out of the Rikers Island reformatory. As a professor, he began research on low-income older people after his father lost his job at age 61 and had trouble finding new employment.
Kilty believes that public policies focusing on education and job training can make a significant dent in poverty. The War on Poverty, for example, reduced the U.S. poverty rate from 19 percent in 1964 to 12 percent in 1969. The current U.S. poverty rate is 15 percent.
Although Johnson gets credit for spearheading the program through Congress, he was reacting to public demand, notes Kilty, who believes that broad-based support must re-emerge today.
“We tend to forget about these problems and put them aside. As a public priority, it tends to fade over time,” he said.
“It’s only when people organize themselves and push from below that change happens. It takes a change in our perception of how we as a society want to be.”
Nuckols is editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times.
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