by Molly Ivins
The poorare still with us. Just thought I'd point that out, in case you were under the impression that all was tickety-boo here in the land of milk and honey. In fact, there are more of them than ever as a consequence of an economy that has entirely bypassed those at the bottom.
Even given the peculiar way our government defines poverty, the current poverty rate of 13 percent is still higher than it was 30 years ago. We're having yet another debate about how to define poverty with the usual result: If we make the standard more realistic, we'll have to list millions more Americans as poor.
"The poor" is such a dehumanizing abstraction. There's an old Woody Guthrie song about a crash that killed two dozen people described on the radio as "just deportees." The chorus goes: "Goodbye my Juan, goodbye Rosalita. Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria" -- the point being that they had names. Because this society is increasingly stratified by class, it gets harder and harder for those who live in affluent suburbs to think of "the poor" by name.
"Everyone here is so well-off," a visitor said of the Texas Hill Country over Thanksgiving weekend. I laughed. The shacks, the trailers, the maids, the yardmen, the cedar choppers, the peach pickers, the stone workers, the fence builders, the laundry workers, the day laborers -- all so curiously invisible.
In rural areas, it's still possible to know poor folks by name: the kids who show up for school dressed in clothes from St. Vincent de Paul, the folks down the road struggling to hang onto the family farm. In big cities, too, "the poor" are hard to miss -- sleeping on park benches, begging at the bus station, clustered around the Salvation Army. But in the 'burbs, land of shopping malls and commutes and Suburbans and Expeditions, where do you see the famous hypothetical family of four living on less than $17,000 a year? And often on a lot less.
Perhaps the most bizarre recent response to the poor among us is that of Rudy Giuliani, mayor of New York City, who has decided to arrest the homeless. Living on the streets? You're busted.
Which wouldn't be so funny if the same Rudy Giuliani hadn't just said in October that he would start booting people out of homeless shelters if they refused to work. Entire families are being kicked out of shelters for incomplete paperwork or failing to show up for a job interview that might be miles away and to which they have no transportation.
The New York Post quoted one man: "I'm not on crack. I'm not mentally ill. I just could not afford to pay rent." But "the crisis in low-income housing" is another one of those bloodless abstractions that have nothing to do with Juan, Rosalita, Jesus or Maria.
According to The New York Times, as we move into the advanced stages of welfare deform, a heretofore undiagnosed problem has emerged. We always knew we could move about a third of the people on welfare off fairly easily. That's the same third that always moved on after a brief period under the old system. And the theory was that we could move another third off the rolls if the labor market got tight enough, which is also happening.
But there was always that last third, people with multiple problems: mental, physical, lack of education, no training -- not to mention the problems of transportation, child care, health care and housing.
What is emerging -- particularly in Wisconsin, where welfare deform is both far advanced and being done fairly well by most measures -- is the extraordinarily high number of single mothers on welfare who were sexually abused as children.
There are more technical terms for this, but the bottom line is that these women have a hard time getting it together. They go to the motivational classes and the job-training classes, they want to work, they get jobs -- but then they fail to show up once, twice, then for a week or more. They can't keep it up.
Every little setback is a crisis to them; unkindness or fear immobilizes them. Depression, low self-esteem and hopelessness all combine to make them exceptionably fragile.
Supporting two kids on the minimum wage ($11,752 a year) requires a lot of togetherness, not to mention sheer stamina. Fighting one's way through the welfare bureaucracy to get the help to which one is entitled is a challenge for someone with a college degree and a lot of self-confidence; try doing it after an eight-hour workday with no transportation, especially if your English isn't good and you are terrified of authority. (Offices open 9 to 5, with long waiting periods, endless forms and proof of income and assets required.) "Catch-22" is not a trite phrase for poor Americans -- it's a way of life.
We've gotten this far with welfare deform because of the sustained economic boom, which, as Jamie Galbraith of the University of Texas points out, is built largely on the explosion of private household debt. "And with banks consolidating and diversifying, and Congress preparing punitive new bankruptcy provisions while the Fed inches interest rates upward, one can see the reckoning in the works," Galbraith wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed piece. (Now there's an abstraction for you -- the Fed has increased interest rates three times this year despite the lack of a single symptom of inflation.)
With or without such fiscal folly, the boom will end because that's what booms do. Middle-class America, which has gained only marginally from this boom, will be left with a mountain of debt it can't write off.
But Juan, Rosalita, Jesus and Maria -- last hired, first fired, day labor, no unemployment, no welfare -- will be left to the tender mercies of those whose idea of government action for the poor is to arrest the homeless.
December 1, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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