DENVER. — Denver -- The poor, the poor, what are we to do about the poor? A decade ago, that plea had a compassionate ring to it. America focused on assisting the needy, and we were determined to wash poverty away.
Today, the question is more likely to denote a cry of ''enough already with the poor.'' An endless tide of beggars, the philosophically destitute and the emotionally crippled, seems to confront working people. In the 11th year of the Reagan-Bush era the indigent are still encouraged to cling to the myth of a free lunch.
Don't get me wrong. Poverty sucks. But poverty alone does not make you an unsatisfactory person. I can't believe that, because I grew up poor. But staying poor doesn't make you a better person either.
Nonetheless, in their effort to help, I think caring people, with phrases like ''not blaming the victim,'' unwittingly have eroded society's disapproval of indigency. Not only don't we blame the victims of poverty for being poor, we've taken away the stigma of failing and the obligation to succeed; we've granted the poor and the illiterate immunity from the burden of properly feeding and educating their children.
Every day I wonder what's become of the idea of the American dream. In our wish to help, have we created an environment where the poor can refuse to change their status?
In his book ''Losing Ground, American Social Policy 1950- 1980,'' Charles Murray documents some very disturbing statistics. He writes: ''The food-stamp program under Lyndon Johnson began with 424,000 participants in 1965. When Johnson left office, it served 2.2 million people. In the first two Nixon years, that number doubled. By the end of the next two, it had quintupled. By 1980, the number of participants had grown to 21.1 million -- 50 times the coverage of the original Great Society legislation, ten times the coverage of the program at the end of the Johnson administration.''
Recently new statistics came out: More than 23 million Americans, nearly one in ten, receive food stamps. Recession accounts for the recent bulge, but not for the sprawling growth of the program over 25 years.
In challenging the poor to alter their dependency, am I blaming the victims? I think rather that the victims' predicament must be considered in light of the strides that have been made with civil rights, public education, affirmative action, corporate outreach programs, federal policies to correct social ills and a recently proposed plan for clandestine bias testing to root out racial discrimination. Now it's time for the victims themselves to accept some of the responsibility for their lives.
Over the decades, black leaders have blamed poverty on the white economic system and on endemic racism. Suppose they are correct: It's still true that unless black people are ready to accept that they are wholly incapable of fending for their own economic and moral good, we must face facts. We can't have our cake and eat it too. If the black underclass are so sensitive to prejudice that even a single drop of it is crippling, then they are a doomed people.
Ken Hamblin is a Denver columnist and radio personality.