Grand opening, sad numbers

DAN RODRICKS

November 20, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

"For ye have the poor always with you," Matthew states in the New Testament.

"The poor shall never cease out of the land," it says in Deuteronomy.

On Sunday, Dec. 1, we affirm the bleak notions of the wise men of Scripture.

That's the day Baltimore's best-known soup kitchen for the poor becomes Baltimore's "permanent" soup kitchen for the poor. That's the day Our Daily Bread becomes a fixture at Cathedral and Franklin streets. It becomes physically what it already is spiritually -- the brick-and-mortar anchor in the city's charity-delivery system.

The building looks as solid as any bank or commercial institution, and even more stylish. From the ground up, it evokes "foreverness," in the same way the new $100 million stadium in Camden Yards evokes it.

Our Daily Bread is here to stay, by the looks of things, and that's nothing to celebrate.

Certainly the effort that went into the construction is deserving of praise, and the grand opening provides an opportunity to honor the scores of men and women from churches, synagogues and civic organizations who volunteered their time to serve thousands of meals to Baltimore's poor.

But when a soup kitchen becomes, by design, a permanent institution in a city, who can raise a glass? We should be ashamed of the level of poverty in this city, in this nation. Our Daily Bread needs better, bigger facilities because the number of people who eat there has grown tremendously.

When it opened in 1981, it was a small storefront place with a few tables and chairs, designed to serve about 125 hungry people a day. Now, there are days when Our Daily Bread serves up to 900 people -- young, unemployed men, some of them

freshly paroled; working poor; seniors who can't make their pension checks last beyond the third week of the month; single mothers with small children; mentally impaired wanderers who go from street to shelter to soup kitchen to street.

Our Daily Bread got to be a popular place during the recession of the early 1980s. It was always busy and, with its high-profile location, attracted a lot of media attention.

But even when there was an economic boom, there still were long lines for food. And yet a lot of people couldn't accept the claims of poverty and hunger.

I'll never forget Ed Meese, who, just a few days after devouring pate at a lavish White House banquet, opined that many diners in the nation's soup kitchens were sleazeballs scoring free meals. No doubt that was true -- in some cases. But to hear the U.S. attorney general say it was to hear an authoritative conclusion, as if exhaustive study had been done. Of course, it was just mean talk. Having learned well from his master, Meese knew he could get lots of mileage out of a good anecdote. Ronald Reagan had welfare queen stories; Well-Fed Ed gave us insinuations about soup kitchen rats.

It worked for him. Every time I write about Our Daily Bread, I get two or three letters from anonymous cynics who suggest, often in hostile terms, that the regulars at Our Daily Bread are just moochers.

Of course, conservatives -- defined by Franklin D. Roosevelt as "men with two perfectly good legs who have never learned how to walk forward" -- need to occupy themselves with myths about the poor. How else can they continue to believe that the reduction of the so-called safety net during the Reagan-Bush years did not exact great human cost?

Poverty remains with us. In fact, the national poverty rate has climbed again, with the Census Bureau reporting that 33.6 million people now live below the poverty line, set by the government as $13,359 annually for a family of four.

Forty percent of the nation's poor are children. They're the underclass -- the underfed and the undereducated. Consider the problems of Baltimore's school system in this light: Of the city's 108,000 students, 67,000 live in poverty.

An important indicator of poverty's penetration into the middle class is the number of people receiving food stamps. Roughly 1 in 10 Americans now get them; that's a record 23.6 million people. More than 320,000 of them live in Maryland, and that's the highest number here since 1981.

It's not concrete that makes a solid foundation for the new, permanent Our Daily Bread. It's numbers.

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