More grow poor amid a poverty of optimism

MICHAEL OLESKER

April 23, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The beginning of this story goes back 25 years, to a college sociology course that Bruce Quade and I attended almost never.

The course was called Social Stratification. It was supposed to explain all the differences between rich people and poor people even though, as everyone knows, Ernest Hemingway had deftly pointed out the key distinction many years earlier.

''The rich,'' he explained, ''have more money.''

Apparently, there was more to this social stratification business than that -- although, between my friend Bruce and me, you couldn't tell for sure. With great foresight and laziness, we'd managed to miss most of the lectures, to such an extent that on one rare morning when we actually showed up for class and cowered in the back row, we heard the professor, Dr. Pease, utter the following horrifying phrase:

''Don't forget, your test papers are due next time.''

It was very weird stuff, a take-home test in two parts. In the first part, we were to ask an essay question. The question itself would count for half our grade.

Then, after we got the question returned from Dr. Pease, we'd have to answer it -- for the other half.

Now begins the trauma.

Bruce Quade and I show up for the next class and, naturally, things being the way they were, neither of us had yet come up with an essay question. Fifty percent of our grade rested on it.

With maybe three minutes left before Dr. Pease arrives, I hear words coming out of Bruce: ''I've got it,'' he cries. '' 'Will there always be a poor?' ''

Will there always be a poor?

Even now, from this distance of 25 years, I can remember the exact phrasing of his question. I remember it because, at that moment, with the clock ticking away the seconds toward judgment, it seemed an utterly brilliant question that seemed to sum up so much of what that course was -- I'm assuming -- all about.

And I remember the exact words, also, because of what followed.

''Pass your papers to the front,'' Dr. Pease said when he entered the room. I folded mine and sent it forward, its contents now mercifully lost to time and the subconscious desire to block out what I'm certain was something dim and simplistic.

Bruce took one last nervous look at his question -- ''Will there always be a poor?'' -- and sent it forward.

As he stacked the papers on his desk, Dr. Pease glanced across all those students gathered in the room and uttered words never to be forgotten:

''The class before yours had the same assignment,'' he said. ''It was good to see so many of them put a lot of time and thought into their questions. But, of course, some people just wrote down any piece of garbage, such as: 'Will there always be a poor?' ''

Final snapshot of Bruce: He was sliding onto the floor and making sounds as if he'd just gone into labor.

Well, it was all very long ago. Bruce graduated and went to work for the government. I graduated and went to work for a newspaper. We lost contact after a while, the way people do.

In the last 25 years, I guess Bruce and I have talked on the phone a handful of times, remembering old times and always coming back to that central test question and the panic it provoked at the time, and the laughter it provoked in retrospect.

The thing is, I never understood why his question was considered so dumb.

In those days, the nation seemed to be embracing the formerly unembraced. There was a sense that economic fairness would finally begin to take hold. Could we rid the nation of poverty?

You don't hear such talk any more. In the last decade, the distance between rich and poor Americans increased to a gap never before seen. And the other day, we learned a few new statistics:

The richest 1 percent of American families got 70 percent of the increase in average family income from 1977 to 1989. That same 1 percent now has 37 percent of the country's net worth. The top 10 percent has 68 percent of the wealth.

And the poorest 90 percent of the country divides just 32 percent of the net worth.

In such a light, it doesn't seem so dumb to ask if we'll always have a poor.

Who's to blame? Round up the usual suspects: the Reagan-Bush White House callousness, the congressional winks at special-interest big shots, the foreign competition, the death of the nation's solid old manufacturing jobs, the wage gaps between the skilled and the unskilled, the tax breaks favoring the rich.

In the city of Baltimore, where most of the state's impoverished reside, household income has remained virtually unchanged for 20 years. Half of all city households earn less than $22,000 a year. Welfare rolls continue to overflow. Nobody's expecting improvement.

So now we come to the finish of the Bruce Quade story, minus any retrospective laughter.

Last Thursday, the day after American citizens paid $1.8 trillion to the tax collectors, this newspaper ran a story across the top of Page One: ''Rich still richer, poor still poorer.''

And out of the blue, 25 years after the fact, my telephone rings.

It is Bruce Quade, whom I have not seen since college and have not talked with in several years.

''I'll tell you what made me call,'' he says. ''Did you read your newspaper?''

''Which story?'' I ask.

''Right on the front page,'' he says. '' 'Rich still richer, poor still poorer.' ''

''I saw it,'' I say.

''I think,'' my old friend says, ''we finally got an answer to that question of mine.''

And, instead of laughter, I think I heard anger in his voice this time.

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