Growing up, I lived out in the country in southern Ohio on a road called Duck Run. It was sort of a secluded upbringing. There was no city, no town—not even a small town nearby.
The first house I remember living in was a big farmhouse. It probably wasn’t really all that big but things always look larger when you’re a kid. When I was maybe 4 or 5 years old, I woke up in the middle of the night, my sister was carrying me out of the house. It was on fire.
My Dad was working at the steel mill on the midnight shift. The rest of us—there were nine of us kids, I had four brothers and four sisters—we stood on the other side of the road with Mom and watched our house burn to the ground. When Dad got home there was nothing. We weren’t able to get our clothes out, or anything else. And there was no insurance.
So what to do?
We had a chicken house up on the side of the hill. My older brothers and my Dad took cardboard and used it as plaster board. And so we lived there in the chicken house for a while—that’s where I had whooping cough. Down over the side of the hill we had what we called a smokehouse—which was basically a cellar with a little structure on top of it. We used that as our kitchen. Eventually, my Dad and older brothers took our barn and made a house out of it, and that’s where I grew up.
It was definitely tough times. My Dad probably had a 5th grade education, my Mom—I’m not sure how far she went in school. I had a tenth sibling who didn’t survive childhood.
Dad drank a lot, and wasn’t always kind. But my mother was just the opposite—she was like the sponge that absorbed all of the incoming fire, so to speak. She was the protector. And I always felt secure, sure that my Mom and Dad would be there for us.
I know there were times my parents went without what they desperately needed in order to make it possible for us kids to have what we needed. We all cared for each other. I remember times trying not to eat too much food. We ate a lot of mush—oatmeal, basically. But we always had pigs, and chickens, and cows. We had a lot of vegetables—my Mom canned a lot. We grew a lot of potatoes and tomatoes and beans. We always had horses, I remember plowing behind a team of horses with what we called a turning plow that would dig deep into the earth.
Things got a little better as some of my older siblings left the house and got jobs. Three of my brothers became construction workers—cement finishers. We got indoor plumbing in our barn house when I was in high school.
I had no thought whatsoever of going to college—never knew anyone who went to college. But I enjoyed school. I stuttered badly at times during that period, but I had teachers who saw potential in me. Mabel Keller taught me during 1st through 4th grades in a one-room school. I remember standing outside with her one day and she said to me, “Teddy, I wish you were my little boy.” I remember the pride I felt. When I was a senior in high school, another teacher, Frankie Edwards, took me to visit a small liberal arts college in Kentucky, Asbury College. On the way home she told me if I wanted to go to college I could, there were people who would help me afford it.
So I went on to further my education and got two Masters and a PhD. Other than myself, only one of my siblings finished high school. And some of them were truly much more capable than I—and I mean that. The only difference between my brothers finishing concrete—and it’s an honorable thing to do—and my ability to become a psychologist and a Congressman and a Governor, was opportunity and education. Because I came a long later in the birth order it was possible for me to have opportunities they just didn’t have.
My family was strongly Democratic, primarily because of what my folks experienced during the Depression. So I grew up hearing about FDR and the importance of social security and other programs that helped people in need. We were also a strong labor family—my Dad worked at the steel mill, my brothers were members of the Cement Mason’s Union, and I belonged to the Laborers’ Union during my graduate school days when I worked in construction. This, and my family’s experience when I was growing up, as well as the teachings of my faith—have always caused me to feel a responsibility to look out for those who have fewer opportunities in life. And I’ve always tried to stay close to the people I want to represent—primarily because of my own need to stay in touch with where I came from. I’ve always felt that if you’re not careful when you’re in public life you can start thinking of yourself as being other than the people whom you represent. I’ve always tried to consciously make sure that that didn’t happen to me—I’ve seen it happen to too many other people.
So when I was in Congress and in the Governor’s office I never accepted any subsidized healthcare coverage, because there were a lot of people I represented who had no access to health care. In terms of combatting poverty, I’m very proud of the work I did in Congress on the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which provides health insurance for millions of children nationwide who can’t afford private health insurance. A small group of us in the House regularly met over a long period of time to formulate what became the CHIP legislation.
But I look back over my tenure as Governor, and I talked a lot more about the middle class than I did about people in poverty, or near poverty. And, yes, it was a difficult time during the Great Recession— just trying to keep things together, keep things from totally falling apart. But we don’t hear as much concern expressed about low-income people as we did 20 or 30 years ago, and I believe that we’re regressing as a nation in that regard.
I think there is a tendency on the part of people who are not struggling to survive every day to assume that the safety net programs are there and helping the people who need help. But then you talk to people who operate food banks, for example, you find out that there are a lot of hungry people and the food banks can’t meet the need. And more and more, you find people who used to donate to the food banks are now turning to them every month in need.
The excuse we hear too often from political leaders who don’t talk about poverty is that budgets are too tight and you can only do so much. But there is a reason budgets are tight—we have cut taxes! If we had a progressive tax system that was anywhere near the levels it was before Ronald Reagan became President, we would have the resources we need.
This is one area where I think we can do a much better job—talking about the link between tax policy, decreasing revenues, and cuts in programs that people need to have a fair shot at the American Dream.
We also have to do a better job talking about work and shared prosperity. It’s un-American, frankly, that you can work and work and work and not get out of poverty. And I think something that is sometimes missing from progressive consciousness—and something that certainly benefited my family—is an awareness of the importance of organized labor. We became as egalitarian as we did as a nation because working people gained power and influence by banding together and bargaining for better wages and benefits and safety conditions. And as economic disparities have increased over these last few decades, the influence of organized labor has decreased.
So whether it’s the same paradigm or not, we’ve got to find some way for people to act collectively in their self-interest. And that’s a challenge that I think is facing organized labor but also all of us who care about giving everyone a fair shot and a fair chance.
We simply can’t get where we need to go as a nation through individual efforts. It’s got to be through collective action.
Gov. Ted Strickland (D-OH) is the President of the Center for American Progress Action Fund and Counselor to the Center for American Progress. He served six terms in Congress and became Ohio’s 68th governor in 2006.
Photo by AP Photo/Craig Ruttle