“One cannot prepare for war and expect peace.” Einstein
I didn’t know this at the time. Like most people, I was too caught up in my own story.
My story will not make it into history books. History books are written for purposes other than the truth. History texts are written to spin campaigns of greed and mass murder into heroics, unexpected but necessary freedom fights and righteous wars.
This story will not make it into any newspaper or on-line media channel. Readers today want short information bites, celebrity smiles and grabby photos. Those holding the purse-strings, control media outlets.
I was there in 1981 when our country sucked the blood from our successful “war on poverty” and began new preparations for other kinds of wars. As a beneficiary of the war on poverty I know it worked. I also know the price of killing it.
Back then, I was a poster-child for the success of our war on poverty. After Viet Nam, leaders redirected war money into lifting up the poor at home. This process worked well.
I’m the third of seven children. I was raised on a small family farm. Both of my parents are children of immigrants. My parents were children during the Great Depression. They were, and still are, hard-working, frugal and proud. They were too proud to accept government handouts that could have fed and clothed us better.
I grew up in poverty.
Only looking back from where I am today can I recognize the effects of federal anti-poverty and equal-opportunity policies on my life. As an impoverished young person, I was out of the loop as far as knowing what was happening in Washington.
At high school graduation I focused on getting myself as far away from that farm as possible. I had learned in school that poverty is the fault of poor people. I was taught that people like my parents had brought poverty on themselves through their bad choices. It was their fault for not finishing school, not finding jobs and for having all those children.
“My parents are proud to be poor,” I sneered as I high-tailed it away from family and farm.
But finishing school did not prepare me for real life. I knew how to work hard and grow potatoes but I didn’t know how to find a job. I didn’t know how to shelter myself or stay safe. The worst part was, I didn’t know that I didn’t know. I was a sitting duck when I left home on my own. I was easy plucking.
I’ll fast forward through those early plucking times to the time when the federal war on poverty put feathers on my wings.
In 1974, federal equal opportunity law mandated women and minorities be hired on all federal contracts. As a woman with a Hispanic surname, I was snapped up by the labor union, trained and put to work on a construction crew building a federally-funded plutonium plant.
After a year of working, regular meals and a roof over my head, I had the space to imagine that I could be more. A student showed me how to apply for college. Another student showed me how to fill out grant papers. I lived poor, worked hard and made it through college with no debt.
At the time, I didn’t know that low state college tuition, student work-study jobs and education grants were part of the armature of our government’s war on poverty. These supported me while I climbed to places I could not have gone alone.
My liberal arts education allowed me to dream of becoming a doctor. A student helped write my applications. Another student helped me study for entrance exams. I wept when I got my acceptance letter.
The financial aid officer at the medical school promised me grants and low-interest loans. Loans worried me. He promised I’d soon be able to earn enough to pay them back. The interest would be deductible. Our country’s war on poverty continued to support me. It felt shakier under my feet, but I climbed.
In 1981, when I was two years into medical school, the “war on poverty” programs were axed. Equal rights began to be dismantled. The money from our war on poverty was redirected into building another war machine. The regular kind.
Grants and low-interest loans vanished. Tuition sky-rocketed. I had already signed on for two years of school debt. It was BIG money. No ordinary job could make those payments. I had to stay in school.
There were many military-funded students in my medical class. I didn’t realize it then, but this meant we were already ramping up the war machine when I walked in the front door of medical school. These students bragged about how the military paid for their tuition and living expenses during peace time. Clever of them. No risk. These students were the military’s physicians and surgeons for our Gulf war.
The military-funded students rented nice condos and drove sporty cars. They wore tidy utilitarian clothes. They spent summers in training camps.
The rich kids in my school bought houses as “good investments” while in school. They spent summers in Europe and oozed confidence.
I was just one of those poor kids who’d borrowed money to be there. A hayseed. I wore the wrong shabby clothes. I rented a roach-ridden apartment in a rough neighborhood and rode the bus.
When the supports were axed from under our war on poverty the financial aid guy encouraged me to jump on the military band wagon. This financial aid guy had such a nice smile that I didn’t see his conflict of interest. A school needs paying students.
We hadn’t had a war in so long. He reassured me that my pacifist morals need not be troubled by accepting military money.
But I was a suspicious pacifist. Instead, I signed up for the new-deal privateer student loans. I paid for the privilege of walking away from the killing machine with a lifetime anchor of debt.
Looking back on those years, I see that I was plucked. My years of hard work, dreams and determination struggling through the channels opened by equal opportunity and the war on poverty carried me just high enough to have to choose between being a complicit cog in the killing machine or signing on for a lifetime of debt to feather the nests of Wall Street capitalists.
That was when we began to plan and build our killing machine for our current “unexpected” and righteous wars. We carry out our righteous killing to ensure others access to our same kind of freedom, education and economic opportunities.
This is our new war on poverty.
Thanks for reading.
Alice de Saavedra Keys MD