It’s fitting that Keith Kilty, Professor Emeritus at Ohio State University’s Department of Social Work, borrows from Sojourner Truth in titling his film “Ain’t I A Person?” At its core, the documentary does on video what Michael Harrington did in print with his epic book on poverty, The Other America.

Kilty, in the tradition of Harrington, is taking the all-too-often invisible poor and humanizing their plight. This is the ultimate success of this well done documentary. Produced primarily in Ohio with much of it set in urban Cincinnati, a city at one point with the highest rate of urban poverty in the U.S., the film succeeds not only as a record of human suffering but also functions as a primer on poverty.

Kilty centers the film around a variety of questions that are essential for any intelligent discussion of public policy aimed at reducing poverty. His years as a professor aid him in explaining what poverty is, how it is defined, and what are its root causes.

Assisting him in this task is the legendary Frances Fox Piven, recently under attack by Glen Beck and threatened with death and violence by some of his followers for arguing that poor people do best and poverty is reduced the most when people create movements, march in the streets, and take direct action. Piven’s analysis is important since she is given time to talk and explain the history of poor people’s movements, as opposed to being reduced to a sound bite taken out of context surrounded by a conspiracy theory.

A key point made by Kilty is the unwillingness of elected officials to acknowledge the level of poverty currently in the country. When Harrington wrote his book at the end of the 50s, the poverty rate at the end of the Eisenhower administration was 22%. Even at the time of Kennedy’s assassination the official poverty rate was 17%. It was only with a massive “War on Poverty” as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program that poverty dropped to its historic low of 11% in the mid-60s.

Johnson’s War on Poverty, which Harrington worked for and in many ways was the architect of, was never completed because it was “lost in jungles of Vietnam,” as Harrington described it, when massive war spending replaced spending for human needs.

In updating Harrington, Kilty, the former editor of the Journal on Poverty, takes a realistic look at the impact of the recent so-called great recession. In terms of real numbers, poverty is at its historical height with some 43,600,000 people officially below the poverty line in 2009 (14.3%).

Kilty takes on the obvious myths and half-truths that allow politicians and an over-burdened public to turn away from poor people. By using extended personal interviews with working poor and others facing poverty due to lost jobs, tragedy, medical problems, and divorces, Kilty establishes the numerous paths to poverty. For example, one woman details how a bedbug infestation and the time it took to solve the problem for her and her children, which doctors misdiagnosed, caused her to lose her job.

Kilty’s video is successful on two obvious levels. First, in dispelling the myths and propaganda surrounding poverty in the U.S., and second and perhaps more importantly, putting a human face on those living in poverty.

We need to be reminded that many people earning $11 an hour with a family of four are not officially considered below the poverty line. Also that the minimum wage in Ohio at $7.25 an hour puts a family of four significantly under the poverty line. Kilty’s film demonstrates the need not only for a sense of community and compassion towards the “least of our brethren” but for social policies that mandate a living wage for all working people.

While some might question the length of the interviews with the poor, they serve as a necessary vehicle to provide a voice for those who have remained voiceless, invisible and have never gotten to even ask the key question, “Ain’t I A Person?”


Bob Fitrakis is the editor of Keith Kilty is a Board member of the Columbus Institute for Contemporary Journalism.

Ain't I A Person