Book Review of America, We Need to Talk by Lee Riley Powell, Co-Chair, Economic Equality Caucus and Executive Director, Delta Grassroots Caucus


"Joel Berg Beams a Light of Truth on US Political and Economic Reform"

Joel Berg's brilliant new book, America, We Need to Talk: A Self-Help Book for the Nation, should be read by all people in the Delta region and across the country who are concerned about reforming the American social, economic and political system.

The book is poignant for the entire country, but especially so for regions like the Greater Delta that have historically lagged behind the rest of America and bear unusually high rates of poverty and food insecurity.

It's partly a hilarious parody of self-help books, but more importantly, the work is a deadly serious analysis of America's political, social and economic challenges today.

Joel Berg is CEO of Hunger Free America, a national anti-hunger and poverty nonprofit with headquarters in New York that works in the Delta region and across the country. Joel lived in Arkansas for a while earlier in his career, did extensive projects in the Delta region as a Presidential appointee at USDA in the Clinton administration, and has continued his strong commitment to the eight-state area from New Orleans to southern Illinois and Missouri and eastward to the Alabama Black Belt in recent years.

Joel will be one of the speakers at the Economic Equality Caucus conference on May 23-24, 2018 in the Washington, DC area. We have a number of authors on economic development and justice, and we like to encourage people to read informative books on these subjects.

You can get a copy of the book in several ways-you can go to the website-in which half of each book's price goes to the vital nonprofit work of Hunger Free America. Or you can go to, or other book sellers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Mr. Berg is the most dynamic and eloquent leader on poverty and hunger issues in our country today, but this book encompasses a much broader scope including middle class issues, the grave flaws in the "trickle-down" economic policy that caters to the wealthiest 1%, and the folly of a militaristic foreign policy that devours vast resources of our blood and treasure. 

As advocates for an economic equality organization focusing first of all on the Delta but also on Appalachia, Southwest Border, parts of the Midwest and other economically distressed regions, the Delta Caucus/Economic Equality Caucus senior partners often have people decline to take any action in contacting their federal, state or local elected officials on the grounds that "Well, the politicians and the system are corrupt, so it's a waste of time." Berg forcefully argues that we must move beyond simply bashing the powers that be "and own up to our individual roles in letting the nation slide, and our joint obligation to save it."

America, We Need to Talk gives our country a wake-up call about personal responsibility--start with yourself in taking action and demanding constructive change from our elected officials rather than just complaining. You are a big part of the problem if all you do is whine about the system's broken but do nothing to make your voice heard. The best way to assure that nothing changes is for Americans to sulk in our tents. With an apathetic electorate, then the powers that be truly have a field day in advancing their own interests while ignoring the good of the country.

Taking personal responsibility: Whining that we are powerless is not only a cop-out, but a falsehood. Berg cites examples where getting involved produced impressive results-such as the recent organizing efforts of fast food employees and others that led to California, New York, the cities of Seattle and Washington, DC raising the minimum wage to $15, with other states and localities following suit.

While today's America faces dire challenges, Berg reminds us that "we've gotten through far darker times than these-slavery, moves to crush the suffragette movement, the internship of Japanese Americans, state-sponsored violence against unions, World War II, rampant child labor, segregation, the Depression, the McCarty Era, and so on. Ultimately, we make the choices for good or bad-witness the stark contrast in the 1930s when most Germans chose Nazism while most Americans chose the New Deal.

So when people complain to Berg that its just "too hard" to write an email to a Member of Congress or governor, or pick up the phone and advocate for better health care programs or job creation and infrastructure improvements, or real efforts to reduce poverty or hunger, he eloquently reminds us of what the definition of "hard" really is:

"Hard is landing at Normandy Beach under ferocious machine gun and mortar fire. Hard is marching for civil rights over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma while being viciously clubbed. Hard is looking into your daughter's eyes and having to tell her you don't have any food that night for dinner. Get over yourself, America, and get back to work fixing our country and world."

Grassroots movements AND governmental officials are essential in making progress in reform. A telling example is the civil rights movement--many grassroots advocates or admirers of the Kennedy-Johnson administration have wasted great amounts of time and words in claiming "credit" for such achievements as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Berg points out that both were essential--if Martin Luther King and many other grassroots advocates had not inspired thousands of activists to take direct action in challenging racism, and had not generated massive media coverage and gained the attention of powers that be, these historic bills would not have been passed. On the other hand, if President Johnson and the leadership in Congress had balked in passing the laws, it also would not have happened. We need both grassroots activism and wise leadership from the political powers that be. 

As Mr. Berg rightly explains: "Those who argue over whether political leaders or social movements are more decisive--such as in the debate over whether Martin Luther King, Jr. or President Lyndon Johnson played the most influential role in passing great pieces of civil rights legislation in the 1960s--are missing the point: that both are needed to alternatively pull, push and aid the other." Exactly.

The domestic impact of military quagmires and bloated military budgets: Why should a book focusing mostly on domestic reform include analysis of our bloated military budget and the military quagmires we have constantly plunged into? The US military budget is larger than the next seven or eight largest nations' combined, we are mired in interminable wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations across the globe. We have learned nothing from the tragic experience of Vietnam, having embarked on the tragic intervention in Iraq on the falsehood that Saddam Hussein held weapons of mass destruction--a lie chillingly similar to the dishonesty of the Johnson administration in the early stages of the Vietnam escalation. 

As Berg poignantly writes, "Few American policy makers understood or even tried to understand the history and culture of Iraq or Afghanistan." The results in Iraq were 89,000 direct war deaths, including 4,488 US service personnel killed, 32,223 troops injured (not including post-traumatic stress syndrome) 134,000 civilians killed, 655,000 persons who have died in Iraq since the invasion who would not have died if the war had never occurred, and 2.8 million people either internally displaced or forced to flee the country. Yet, "the country is neither secure nor free."

If vast economic, financial and human resources were not being poured into our tragic foreign adventures, we would have vastly greater resources to address our issues of economic inequality, a deteriorating infrastructure, educational opportunities, hunger and poverty here at home.

At a time when fundamental safety net programs are being threatened, Berg sets the factual record straight: safety net programs like SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), Medicaid, Section 8 subsidized housing, and, if they are working, Earned Income Tax Credits and Child Tax Credits have provided vital services and lifted millions of people above the poverty line.

Right wingers who claim that the War on Poverty was a failure fly in the face of a mountain of facts demonstrating that these programs did cut poverty in half, reduce the worst forms of deprivation, and boosted economic mobility. Berg states the facts:

The Kennedy-Johnson programs-many of which actually continued into the Nixon administration-cut poverty in half between 1960 and 1973 and elevated 16 million Americans out of poverty into the middle class.

Subsequent cuts in poverty-reduction efforts reduced these gains, but poverty and hunger levels always stayed above the high rates as of 1960. 

More recent history has witnessed major shifts in the US economy depending on what policies were followed by later administrations: in the Clinton administration, 2.8 million people who had been previously unemployed entered the workforce, median worker wages increased, and poverty declined-with African American and Hispanic poverty levels achieving historically low levels.

The book is a 600-page gold mine of insightful research and data. Here are some of the many illuminating facts, especially for a region like the Delta which has one of America's highest rates of hunger and poverty:

  • The exorbitant incarceration rates fostered by our criminal justice system cost taxpayers $260 billion a year, which is approximately two and a half times the amount devoted to SNAP, WIC (the supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children) and school meals combined.
  • As of 2013, tax breaks, which went disproportionately for the wealthy, equaled $1.145 trillion, or 14 times the amount the government spent on SNAP nutrition aid that year;
  • SNAP payments amount to about $1.40 a meal, far too tiny to live on, especially because SNAP recipients cannot use them for rent, clothing, transportation or other essentials. This refutes the falsehood that the payments are large and foster dependency.
  • The benefits are so small as to not even come close to provide any incentive to stay dependent on them. SNAP rolls increased when poverty levels increased, as happened under the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, while the SNAP rolls declined under the strong economy during the Clinton Presidency. Berg rightly points out that economics, not laziness, is the fundamental variable determining SNAP participation.
  • The fraud rate of SNAP is only about 1%. While any fraud is bad and of course all efforts should and are being taken by USDA to prevent it, SNAP is in fact one of the most efficient large-scale government programs.
  • SNAP is not socialism but is a voucher program that enables struggling families to shop at private sector businesses, thus generating economic development.
  • Most SNAP beneficiaries are children, seniors, working parents, and people with disabilities. Most adults who get SNAP are hard-working taxpayers who are using SNAP to supplement their low wages.
  • About 900,000 veterans use SNAP, as well as many active duty military families.
  • As of 2016 48 million people were food insecure, but more than a quarter of the people eligible for SNAP did not receive them. Outreach programs are intended to reach the many working parents, seniors and others who are eligible.
  • As of 2015, less than 1% of Americans received cash welfare (which is of course very different from the SNAP programs tied strictly to food assistance), and only 6%of Americans living below the poverty line received cash welfare. This refutes the myth that are huge numbers of Americans dependent on cash welfare.

A final fundamental point to be made about Berg's book is that it is based on pursuing the truth and facts wherever they may lead, and is bipartisan in the best and most accurate sense of that word.

Bipartisanship and fairness does not mean that for every positive or negative comment or fact about a progressive Democrat or a conservative Republican, you cite another fact favorable to the other side. Journalists, advocates, nonprofits, and conscientious leaders of both parties should cite the truth regardless of whether it makes one party or leaders in question look good or bad.

Berg is a former Clinton administration Presidential appointee and of course a Democrat.  To cite examples of true bipartisanship and fairness, we should note that he gives credit to Republican President Richard Nixon for continuing many (but not all, of course) of the constructive nutrition and other War on Poverty programs.

Similarly, he cites the reality that the American tax system was much fairer under Republican President Dwight Eisenhower than it has been under later Presidents: in the 1950s the top marginal federal income tax rate was 91%. As of 2015 the wealthiest Americans paid only about 33% of their income in taxes. This is the single most important explanation as to why our deficits are so sky high and our investments in economic programs and infrastructure is so inadequate.

The book was published before the recent massive tax breaks, which will make the decline since the progressive tax regime of the Eisenhower era even more enormous.

Finally, Berg analyzes the poverty plan put forward by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. In fairness to Ryan, he gives him credit for addressing poverty in a 73-page report at a time when most politicians of both parties avoid the word "poverty" in their rush to assure the great middle classes that their policies are going to "bring prosperous to hard-working middle class Americans."

On the plus side, Ryan proposes expanding the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) that now gives tax refunds to low income workers, mostly those with children, to include more wage earners who don't have children. He also calls for giving workers their portion of EITC payments spread out over each paycheck instead of just once a year.

All well and good, insofar as it goes. But here's where we need to learn the lesson to not just match up a positive point with a negative point and say "Gee, look at how fair and balanced we are."

Ryan's proposal goes on to such detrimental proposals as refusing any effort to get the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share of taxes as they did under President Eisenhower. Such a benign, helpful program as the Farmers' Market Nutrition Program, which helps small farmers, small children and pregnant women gain access to fresh, nutritious local produce at farmers' markets is on his chopping block for abolition.

Far worse, the heart of the Ryan plan is to eliminate the right of individuals to receive SNAP as a guaranteed entitlement if their income is low enough, and to give the money to the states in the form of block grants and allow them to determine who does and who does not get nutrition assistance. The Center on Budget Policy and Priorities and all knowledgeable analysts have concluded that such a plan would lead to major cuts and less help for deserving working families in need.

The Ryan plan is ultimately based on the same bashing of SNAP and other safety net programs as "government give-aways to lazy people." Berg doesn't mince words trying to say "Well, there's good and bad here." The fact is, as Berg bluntly states it, that the Ryan plan "is doomed to failure because of its reliance on discredited, right-wing beliefs about poverty."

Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison, a gigantic figure on the stage of world literature, praised Berg's book by saying, "America, We Need to Talk is both important and entertaining. We need both-I've never seen the political world so sad, so foolish. So dangerous. This book will certainly help."

Joel Berg is the only writer I know who can be brilliant, witty, snarky, inspiring and educational, all at the same time. Don't ask me how he does it. Just take Toni Morrison's advice and read the book.

Lee Riley Powell, Co-Chair, Economic Equality Caucus and Executive Director, Delta Grassroots Caucus