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The relationship between poverty and education is very simple in this country. There is an enormous book by a Mrs. Pat Sexton which indicates that a person is likely to get an education in proportion to how much money he has.1 But this is a country—unlike France, Germany, England and the Scandinavian countries—where you can find three generations on relief. This means that segments of our population, especially in cities like New York and Chicago, never have a chance to get a decent education. It ought not to be necessary to debate the question of correcting this situation, for the most valuable resource in any society is the minds of the people. The proper work of young people is to develop this resource, to train their minds. Since the development of ability is extremely important work, Americans must be given salaries for going to school. I don’t believe that our so-called educational problems can be solved until we take such a radical view: that young people should have free educational opportunities and they should be paid for their work.

The fact is that our problems are all interrelated, and we are not going to be able to solve any one of them without regard to the whole structure of American society. For example the city, county, state form of government devised by the Founding Fathers for 18th century America is increasingly inadequate. I don’t know of any city in this country where a poor boy can go to school and learn something which will be helpful to him or where there is satisfactory housing and transportation. Mr. Lindsay is very brave, but his job is impossible. Not a single city in this whole country has enough money to deal with any one of these problems.

Hundreds of young men come into my office, feeling very angry and looking for work. Invariably, when I ask them, “What can you do? What skills do you have?” they sit and look at their feet and tell me “general diploma from high school.” I say, “My dear man, that piece of paper only tells me how many years you had your feet under a desk. It does not say you’ve been taught anything.” And they know it.

We need to make plans with regard to education which take into account the profound changes occurring in this society. To look at the American school system you would not know that Asia exists; you would not know that Russia exists. In fact, if you try to put anything in a textbook about Russia, you are in trouble. Walk through the schools practically to a Ph.D., and there is no evidence that automation exists. Educators should get busy and invent a decent school system, but that is not to say it is possible to eliminate poverty in this manner. One of our common myths has to do with training the poor untrained, by which people mean Negroes, Puerto Ricans and a few whites from Appalachia. But no minority group, no immigrant group has ever made it due to education.

In Germany today there are illiterates from twelve countries—Sicilians who cannot read or write, Turks who don’t even have a good speaking knowledge of their own language. But six months after getting to Germany these people are semi-skilled workers making excellent salaries. During the period following Pearl Harbor, black and white illiterates from the farms of Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama went into factories, and within three months they were making planes which flew.

When the Irish came here from many parts of Ireland where people were extremely poor and socially backward, there was no talk of Head Start. There is not a single Negro in the bowels of Mississippi who is not better prepared to work in New York City than the Jew who got off the boat from Eastern Europe and could not speak English. Certainly the 250,000 people who have been run out of Mississippi, off the farms, in recent years are better prepared than the poor, uneducated immigrants who came to this country in the year 1910, for at least they can speak the language. Why did we not talk of Head Start for the immigrants?

It is not true that the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, the Poles and all others made it in this society because they were bright or because they had good family life or because they were Catholic or because, as some of my Jewish friends in New York say, “We have such a love for knowledge.” That is mythology! I am very happy to have people give their children mythology after they’ve made it, but I am opposed to their spreading this mythology as a means by which one can make it. The simple reality is that people made it because of objective economic factors, not schoolrooms and books.

Let me pause a moment to illustrate what I mean. Now I am a lover of children. I love to talk and communicate with children because it’s one area where one can find honesty: they have not yet learned to be dishonest. Therefore, I am in favor of anything which is done to help children. That’s why I’m for Head Start. There is a spiritual commandment upon me that no matter how much money is wasted, if it is spent trying to do something for a single child, it is justified. But it’s absurd to think you can take education and sort of leave everything else the way it is. In fact to send a child into Head Start for a few weeks can be a cruel hoax. It is a hoax when the child returns to a triple-session school where teachers loathe children because that’s all they can do with thirty and forty and fifty in a class. The child returns to a neighborhood where dope is sold on the corner, where, as I often note in New York City, the police take money from the people who sell it rather than stopping it at its source. The child returns to housing which has no room for human development.

I am convinced, therefore, that the only way to really help the poor is to establish opportunities, as part of the total economic order, which in some way reflect the manner in which the poor immigrants gained a foothold in American society. It becomes tiresome to hear people who were very poor when they got here talk about how they lifted themselves by their bootstraps: “But, Mr. Rustin, we didn’t ask Congress to pass laws to help us make it; we came from the old country, and we did it ourselves.” Now they think they did, but they didn’t. First of all a number of them had something no Negro has—free land. All they had to do was cross the Alleghenies, and there it was: take it. Or they’d line up on a certain day and wait for an Army sergeant to fire a pistol so they could run and get land. Secondly, they made it because muscle power was an integral necessity for the semi-industrial revolution which was taking place in this country. Any Pole or Italian or Irishman who got off the boat, no matter how stupid he was, could find work immediately. Thirdly, the immigrants made it because the trade union movement was expanding and pushing up wages across the country. The economy was one which could absorb great numbers of people. Today, however, our economy may be producing new jobs for the highly skilled, but it is certainly not producing significant opportunities for the poor.

Now I want to interject a word about illegitimacy among the poor. It is true that Negroes and Puerto Ricans have illegitimate children, but not because they are Negroes and Puerto Ricans. It is because they are poor. For example, the poor Negro girl doesn’t have enough money to get an abortion, whereas great numbers of college girls have abortions every year. There is, however, a great deal wrong with the Negro family. But we won’t get at these problems by making sure that all Negroes go to decent schools or undergo psychoanalysis. Negroes will be able to improve their family life in the same way that other immigrants to this country cleared up the mess that was in their families and for the same reason that crime rates drop in all indigent groups. The family will improve when and not until the man is permitted by objective circumstances to provide economic security for his family.

If you read the history book descriptions of the Irish, their families and behavior, you may achieve a better understanding of our present difficulties. In Harlem the cops walk two by two, but when the Irish were on the Bowery the cops walked six by six. This is no joke. If anyone thinks the Negroes misbehaved in Watts, they ought to read about the draft riots in which the Irish killed over three hundred people, lynched more than thirty Negroes, tore two babies apart and gave out pieces of their fingers and toes as souvenirs, and destroyed much more property than was destroyed in Watts. I looked it up. The conditions were almost identical. In 1863 one-third of all Irishmen in New York were out of work. They were discriminated against in housing. It was just like Watts. The few Irishmen who were on the police force beat up on other Irishmen—just as Negro police beat up on other Negroes, to prove to the rest of the force that they’re not playing favorites, and end up doing more beating than the white cops. In those days it was the Irish who were described as behaving like monkeys—the shanty Irish, the dirty, filthy Irish.

There is an increasing number of people in our society whom no American capitalist will ever put to work. I want to illustrate what this means in a graphic way rather than give figures. So I’ll pick up five or six young Negroes—out of the seventy-seven thousand in Harlem for whom the mayor admits there is no work—and have a little drama with them. I meet the first of these fellows at 135th Street and 7th Avenue. He’s selling marijuana for five dollars a bag. A cop comes up and taps him on the shoulder and says, “Buddy, you are under arrest for selling marijuana.” (I presume the police should do this in an orderly society.) But the boy turns around to the policeman and says, “Brother, you are not merely arresting me for a crime. You’re really out of it. This society forces me to live by my wits, selling women and dope or gambling, and then you come tap me on the shoulder and tell me I’m under arrest? You are not only taking me to jail; you are taking the only job I am permitted to have.”

That, my friends, is why the police review boards, which I’m for, will not solve the problem of tension between minority people and police. If you live in a ghetto situation where you cannot work, you’ve got to hate that man. Suppose I meet another fellow on 125th Street and Lexington Avenue. I say to him, “Hi, Buddy, how’re you doin’?” He says, “Man, I need a job. Can you help me?” I say, “Well come around the office.” He shows up, and I pull out a note from somebody in the garment union: they’re looking for five fellows to push carts in the garment district. This man looks at me and says, “Man, you’re losing your mind. You want to send me down to fight with those trucks in the garment district pushing this little thing around with dresses on it? I’m not about to do that, because they’re only going to pay me forty dollars and I can make more than that by getting up at 3:00 in the afternoon and taking advantage of these dumb niggers uptown. I’ll live by my wits before I’ll push that cart.”

One of the problems is that this society has so oversold, so miseducated people, that these boys have to have cars. You can’t have a girl without a Ford. Nobody will like you unless you have the right hair lotion. Keep lying to the people and make them buy this foolish junk because the wheels have to turn. In the capitalist society when the wheels don’t turn you’re in trouble, so go ahead: put it on television!

I take three of these boys to see Henry Ford, and I say, “Henry, I found these fellows down on Lennox Avenue. They’re awfully nice chaps. Look how straight and tall this one is. This one comes from a family where he didn’t have a father, but look what a nice clean-cut kid he is: that’s hard to do. And this third one was selling pot last week, but he tells me if I can get him a job, he’ll stop.” So Henry says, “What can they do?” And I say, “Well, they can’t do anything. One of them has a general diploma from high school, but he can scarcely read. Henry, you don’t know, because you didn’t go to that kind of school, but kids are promoted in New York City schools according to how tall they are, not what they know.” He thinks I’m joking. I’m not. Kids are continuously pushed ahead because they are too big to be where they are.

I make a request: “Henry, these boys can do nothing, and I know you’re automating the automobile industry. Reuther’s been telling me that less and less men are needed to produce cars. But you’re a fine man. Please help these three: give them work.” So he says, “Well, I’m very sorry, Mr. Rustin, the charitable section of the Ford power is not the Ford Motor Company. That is the Ford Foundation: you go next door. They will do a study. But I can’t hire anybody I don’t need, because I have to get money for my stock. Horrors!”

What I’m trying to illustrate, my friends, is that most of the poor in this country will never be put to work in the existing market structure. My dear friend, Leon Keyserling, will explain this to you and point out that, therefore, the public sector is now responsible for the dignity of work and for paying men to work. I am convinced that, if educators started new schools and devised good revolutionary curriculums, they would still have missed the fundamental problem which is to give men work with dignity now. Since automation makes this impossible in the present structure, we must have public works making it possible for men to earn a decent living.

Public works must be of two types: the building of things we need and the providing of human services. In the first case, unemployed men should be hired to build schools, hospitals, roads, parks, etc., which they and their families will be able to use. Also the poor should be hired to replace slums with good housing. In the second case, we should expand the services which people give to other humans because that is something which automation cannot touch. There is no way to automate babysitting.

Mr. Theobald is going to talk with you about a guaranteed income, and I am for it. But first we must consider: what is a man? A man is his work. If I ask you, “Who is Beethoven?” you will all say, “Composer.” Picasso, a painter; Nat Hentoff, a writer. But, if I look at a list of people on relief and ask you, “Who is Mrs. Jones?,” what will you tell me? I’m listening. The fact is she’s nobody, socially speaking. So I think it is disastrous simply to hand people money according to their financial needs; this takes away their manhood because, ultimately, men either judge one another in the society according to his relationship to production and distribution or they end up as mad as we are today. The point I’m trying to make, therefore, is that, unless we are prepared to redefine work and make sure that people have something to do which is socially valuable, I am opposed to the guaranteed income by itself. But, if you assign creative roles to people, you can give them all the money in the world.

In addition to guaranteed income, redefinition of work and expansion of public works, we need one other thing very badly. We need the ability to recognize in ourselves that we cannot be and feel to the degree that we ought so long as there is anyone in poverty. We need to recognize that the presence of poverty has a terrifying effect on those who have wealth. Ghandi expressed the feelings of many people when he said, “Whenever I live in a situation where others are in need, whether or not I am responsible for it, I have become a thief.”

As I have said, I am for all kinds of educational programs. But education as we know it is not relevant to the fundamental problem of poverty. We must concentrate on providing people with opportunities to relate productively to the life of the society.


1.  Patricia C. Sexton, Education and Income: Inequalities of Opportunity in Our Public Schools (New York: Viking Press, 1964).
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