Thoughts On Poverty

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One reads much about the poor in America, their piteous lives, their blighted hopes, and the unrelieved downtreading of them by various social ogres such as oppressive corporations who sell them greasy hamburgers. (Why does my wretched spell-checker object to “downtreading”? You can’t be downtrodden unless someone downtreads you. How obvious is that?)

This I submit is goober-brained nonsense. America has precious little poverty, if by poverty you mean lack of something to eat, clothing adequate to keep you warm and cover your private parts, and a dry and comfortable place to sleep. In the “inner cities” or, as we used to call them, slums, there is horrendous cultural emptiness, yes, and the products of the suburban high schools are catching up fast. But poverty? The kind you see in the backs streets of Port au Prince? It barely exists in the United States.

The problem is that the poor do not know how to be poor.

As a police reporter for the better part of a decade, I’ve been in a lot of homes in allegedly poor parts of cities. Physically they weren’t terrible. Some (not many, really) were badly kept up, but that isn’t poverty. The residents could have carried the garbage out to the dumpster in the alley. They just couldn’t be bothered.

Ah, but they were indeed morally deprived, culturally and intellectually impoverished, or what we used to call shiftless. I’ve come into an apartment in mid-afternoon and found a half dozen men sitting torpidly in front of the television, into homes where the daughter of thirteen was pregnant and on drugs. The problem wasn’t poverty. The poor can keep their legs crossed as well as anyone else. If the daughter could afford drugs, she could afford food.

Most of these homes would have been regarded as fine by the graduate students of my day. They would have put in board-and-cinderblock bookshelves and a booze cache and been perfectly content.

The reality is that the wherewithal of a cultivated life of leisure, if only in tea shirts and jeans, is within the reach of almost all of the “poor.” If I had to live in really cheap welfarish quarters in Washington, DC, which I know well, on food stamps and a bit of cash welfare, what would I do?

I’d have a hell of a good time.

First, I’d get a library card, which is free, for the public libraries of the District. The downtown library, over on 9th Street, is a huge dark half-empty building in which very few people appear and none of the poor. I’d spend time reading, which I enjoy and the poor don’t. They aren’t interested.

A great many of the poor can’t read, and the rest don’t, but in both cases it is by choice, not because of poverty. The poor can go to the public schools. Their parents can encourage them to study. The schools are terrible, but neither is this because of poverty. The per-student expenditure in Washington is high. The city could afford good teachers and good texts. It isn’t interested.

Music? A hundred-dollar boombox these days provides remarkably good sound, and I’d roll in pirate CDs. The poor listen chiefly to grunting animalic rap, but that is by choice, not by necessity. Washington is neck-deep in free concerts by good groups, as for example the regular ones at KenCen. All of these are advertised in the City Paper, which is free. You never see the poor at these performances, though there is no dress code or discrimination. They aren’t interested.

Washington abounds in good museums and galleries, usually free, none terribly expensive. There is the entire Smithsonian complex, with the National Gallery of Art; there is the Phillips Collection, the…on and on. You never see the poor in them. They aren’t interested.

In parts of Washington near the Hill there are, or were, sometimes thirteen liquor stores encompassed in a four-block circuit (this I think is the number I once counted). You hear of drugs being the curse of the slums, but fortified wine may be as bad. You see old men with paper bags wobbling and bumping into things, a very short way from cirrhosis. Again, a choice: they could spend the money on something else.

All of this much reminds me of homosexuals and AIDS. Like illiteracy, AIDS is voluntary. I don’t dislike homosexuals, certainly wish AIDS on no one — but they know how HIV is transmitted. It they choose to indulge, well, so what? People ride motorcycles without helmets. It’s their decision, but don’t expect me to be particularly stunned if they, or I, croak as a result. Don’t want to study? Your decision. I don’t care. We make our choices.

So it is with poverty.

I now encounter charges that culpability for the usually unimpressive health of the purportedly poor rests with McDonald’s, which sells them foods loaded with fat and salt. Indeed McDonald’s does. But eating Big Macs is a choice, isn’t it? The poor could buy better food at the supermarket. Further, they know they could. They tend to watch a lot of television, with its endless health warnings. They eat fat because they want to eat fat.

Is this, in the tiresome phrase, blaming the victim? Absolutely. When the victim is to blame, blame him. If I get drunk and suffer a hangover, is it your fault? Jim Beam’s fault? Why?

Some will object that the (slight) poverty of the American poor somehow forces them to make bad decisions, which they know to be bad decisions. Well, if the poor have no free will, and haplessly do what their environment ordains, can not the management of McDonald’s plead the same?

If the poor of America were truly penurious, and forcibly kept so, I would see things differently. The sweated children of New York, the slaves of the South, the virtual slaves of the Industrial Revolution in England — these had a cause for complaint. They suffered greatly, and had no way out.

Neither did they have the subsidized housing of today, the welfare, and the leisure consequent to these, nor free medical care, nor public schools which by law they had to attend, nor free libraries, nor the array of special and unearned privilege called “affirmative action.” Today’s poor do have them. They also live in a society that has begged them, prodded them, enticed them to do something with and for themselves. They haven’t. They aren’t interested. And neither, any longer, am I.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.

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