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Rod Watson: Telling a truth Trump and others don’t want to hear

The State of the Union described Tuesday night by President Trump was a lot different than the state of the union described last week by Western New Yorkers talking about what it’s like to be poor.

With the stock market continuing an ascent begun during the Obama years and a tax cut skewed to make the wealthy even wealthier, putting poor people back on the public agenda will be tougher than getting this president to tell the truth.

But maybe that makes this the perfect time for Buffalo to form its own Truth Commission on Poverty as part of an effort launched by the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State.

"What better time than now to push back," said the Rev. Kirk Laubenstein, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Justice.

The coalition and other groups ranging from labor unions to the Buffalo NAACP listened to testimony last week about what it’s like to be poor, not from "talking heads," but from folks who’ve actually lived it.

Those aren’t the people Trump introduced Tuesday night.

Instead, they are people like 34-year-old Sara Palmer, a Buffalo mother of three who relies on food stamps, heating aid and Medicaid even though her husband works as a bill collector and she’s applying for jobs. In an interview, she pointed out one of the Catch-22s poor parents face: The job has to pay enough to cover child care or you end up like a "modern-day wage slave."

Palmer, who grew up amid dysfunction and poverty in a rural area of the Thousand Islands, said she felt compelled to share her story with the commission because change begins when we realize "we’re all in this together" rather than falling prey to divisions and stereotypes stoked by race and ethnicity.

The Truth Commission’s goal is to change the public conversation.

"I don’t want to hear about a ‘renaissance’ if I live in a place where I don’t have a good standard of living," said Dennice Barr, alluding to Buffalo’s resurgence even though 44 percent of its children live in poverty and joblessness is rampant in parts of the city. "We’re leaving a lot of people out of the conversation. It’s all about the haves, not the have-nots."

Instead of tax cuts aimed at the wealthy, Barr, a widow who’s near 60 and who’s been poor in the past, wants the conversation to be about "a tax plan that will help fund programs for families ... there is money, it’s just going to the wrong sources."

Buffalo’s Truth Commission follows similar efforts in Cuba, Schenectady and Suffolk County. Laubenstein said organizers want to reignite the Poor People’s Campaign that Martin Luther King Jr. was trying to launch when he was assassinated, an effort that aimed to bridge divisions of race among people who are all in the same economic boat.

A report based on the testimony will be prepared in advance of Mother’s Day trips to Albany and Washington, D.C., to demand that political leaders pay attention. It’s a tough sell, given a rigged campaign finance system and studies showing voting rates climb with income.

Still, the tax bill, the stock market and the growing gap between rich and poor make this the opportune time to try. Even if poor people don’t have the resources to compete, "we’ve got our bodies," Laubenstein said of the plan to occupy the corridors of power and force politicians to listen. And if they don’t, "you’ll have to put us in jail," he said, recalling the mass arrests of the civil rights era.

It worked then because, as a nation, we still had some semblance of a moral core. I’m not sure we do today.

But it’s worth finding out.

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