I blogged yesterday about how bothered I was by the meme pumped out by Newt Gingrich, and taken up by some conservatives, that receiving food stamps are a sign of being a parasite. To me, this is unconscionable, given the depth and length of this depression. To be fair, it’s worth considering just what we mean by poverty, especially childhood poverty. A few weeks ago, I blogged about a conversation I’d had with a public school teacher who works in another parish, who told me that almost all of her students are on free or reduced lunches, consistent with their parents’ poverty, but many of them also have the latest smart phones, new and expensive sneakers, and other costly gewgaws.
Now here we have an attempt to claim that the government’s rather modest and uninteresting welfare reforms, which deliberately avoid all the real most pressing problems, will create ‘child poverty’.
I think this is just emotionalism. As I so often say, there is no real, absolute material poverty in this country. Look at the living conditions portrayed in the TV series ‘Call the Midwife’, or those described in Somerset Maugham’s novel ‘Liza of Lambeth’ – or indeed the factual reports of poverty in Victorian and Edwardian Britain, and you will see what the word really means – unavoidable squalor caused by the simple lack of plumbing and sanitation, desperate overcrowding, real, gut-grinding hunger, untreated disease. You can find such things, as well, right now, in modern Bombay (those who wish to call it ‘Mumbai’ might like to check the Index item on this stupid, mistaken renaming by people who think they are being ‘progressive’), in Burma and in many African countries. I have seen it there. One of the striking things about it is that those who endure it are often even so unbroken, but dignified, self-disciplined, hard-working, house-proud, and send their children, in crisp uniforms, shining with cleanliness, off to school each morning. It is very moving.
It is also quite unlike the world of the British dependent population, who have all the material basics, but live amidst terrible state-encouraged moral squalor. In many cases, people resist this, and their struggles to maintain respectability and order in their lives area is as moving as anything in Africa. But in many cases they are corrupted by it, and the results are tragic and appalling.
What these people need is an organised and systematic moral rescue which, alas, Iain Duncan Smith is not ready to attempt. Even so, it is surely too much to ask struggling families who earn their bread and pay their debts, to subsidise others who don’t, at the sort of levels now seen.
I agree with this, in general, but I do wonder what “an organized and systematic moral rescue” would entail. How does a state do that without a massive exertion of coercive powers?
Both of my parents were raised in rural poverty. Growing up in the Great Depression, with his father away from home for much of that time because he had to work to support the family, my dad and his brother had to hunt in the woods behind their house to put meat on the table. If they didn’t kill squirrels or other animals, there would be nothing but cornbread and greens for dinner. My mother was born in 1943, but she was so poor as a child she may as well have been living in the Depression. Her stories of walking to school winter mornings in a thin dress, because her family was too poor to buy her a coat, bring tears to my eyes. Aside from the physical suffering — enduring the cold — there is the humiliation that poverty inflicted on that child. My mother is in her late 60s today, and I can’t detect any effects from the cold, but I can still see the effects of that humiliation. When she told me what it was like to be poor as a child, I finally understood why she was so strangely generous to the children who rode the school bus she drove for many years. Every holiday, she would give each child a bag of candy as he or she exited the bus for the school break. She told me later that knowing many of these children were poor, she didn’t want them to do without something special, no matter how small.
So there’s that. I remember from my childhood that there was a distinct cultural element to the kind of poverty we saw in our parish (just so you know, in Louisiana, parish = county). It was common to see black folks living in tarpaper shacks, but with expensive cars, sometimes luxury brands, parked out front. You never saw that with poor whites back then. Many years later, I read sociological research exploring the culturally determined ways people spent their money. If memory serves, poor blacks had the habit of spending their extra money on cars, clothing, and consumer items that quickly depreciated in value — this, as opposed to spending it on improving their housing, saving for education, and so forth. I remember that it was a constant source of low-level grumbling among whites around here: the idea that people depending on public assistance somehow found the cash to spend on automobiles more luxurious than those owned by working people who paid taxes, and who did not drive fancy cars. This was not a myth; it really did happen.
I also seem to recall — and again, forgive me if my memory is faulty — that when satellite television became available to consumers, you’d drive around and see expensive satellite dishes in the yard outside of ratty, falling-apart mobile homes. The folks who lived there were often white.
Now, what middle-class person, black or white, really wants to begrudge people who live in such dire housing a little something special to brighten their lives — satellite TV, a nice car, etc.? Who would want to trade places with them? Not me. Not you. And yet, if you’re seeing a kid with a pair of $150 sneakers, and a $400 smartphone, standing in line every day to get his government-subsidized lunch, something inside you is going to protest. And why not? A generation or two ago, that would have been seen as a source of personal shame, at least in the culture in which I was raised. It would not have been done, at least not among respectable people. Today? I wonder.
What we call “poverty” in this country is not what poverty was a generation or two ago. The deepest poverty is not material, but moral, and social. How do you address that? What do we do with that information? As with the school choice debate, one gets the idea that this discussion takes place between and among elites who have no direct experience with the poor, and who either sentimentally valorize them, or demonize them.