PICTURE a country in which tuberculosis is spreading in the big city and ever-larger numbers of children go hungry. The people know about the hunger, and care about it, but their government does little to end it.
No surprise. In the country in question the citizens have little faith that their government will do much of anything worthwhile. The government, in their view, has become increasingly remote, and "a dangerously broad gulf between the governors and the governed has developed," according to one account.
But these citizens themselves may be part of their country's difficulties. They pay little attention to public affairs, often reject the opportunity to influence their government and spend more time and energy on frivolous pursuits than on keeping themselves informed.
The country in question is the United States of America, and the picture above is painted in broad strokes. The more precise realities may be a bit more complicated, but that does not render the broad strokes invalid.
This information comes from three sources -- a poll on hunger and public attitudes toward it; a report by pollsters and academics based on interviews with citizens and members of Congress; and a visit to New York, which is where tuberculosis has made a comeback.
It's a very limited comeback, confined to the most impoverished, drug-infested precincts and not likely to break out of them. But history records a connection between tuberculosis and society, "a marked correlation" between the disease and "the social structure," according to the Encyclopedia Americana.
So TB could be what ecologists call "an indicator species," pointing to realities larger than itself.
Tuberculosis was associated with cramped urban poverty and public sanitary conditions so bad that disease literally floated in the air. Its decline, the encyclopedia says, comes when economic progress is sufficient to "allow all levels of society to share in the higher standards of living." Its revival could indicate that economic regression is sufficient to prevent some levels of society from sharing in even decent standards of living.
That economic regression helps explain why 5.5 million children under 12 don't get enough to eat, why the number of children in very poor homes (income less than half the poverty level) increased by 1.5 million in the 1980s and why more than a third of all homeless people say that at least one day a week they don't eat at all.
These and other disturbing statistics come from the Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy, affiliated with Tufts University, which also commissioned a poll to find out what the public thinks about the problem. Deliberately, the center and its partners chose a conservative Republican pollster, Vince Breglio, whose survey found that 13 percent of all Americans are personally well-acquainted with someone who did not always get enough food.
That's four percentage points higher than the response to the same question asked in another poll in 1984, and it indicates that some 30 million Americans sometimes go hungry because they can't afford to eat.
So perhaps it was no surprise that the survey also found that 61 percent of all Americans consider hunger a "very serious" problem and that two-thirds of them would even pay higher taxes to solve it.
Yet it is not being solved, perhaps because the people who govern the country are wary of such poll findings. Considering that "taxpayer revolts" regularly spring up around the country, it's hard to blame them.
But the gulf between the governors and the governed transcends this issue, or any one issue.
According to a report based on a series of focus-group discussions by two public opinion analysts, one Democrat and one Republican, good old healthy American skepticism about government has been replaced by an angry cynicism that "threatens to undermine American politics."
So the Centel Corp., with the help of the Joyce Foundation, decided to ask a few members of Congress what they thought, and promised them anonymity. And it turns out that many congressmen are as fed up with their own institution as are the people. But they're also fed up with the people, and they have a point. The congressmen, for instance, reported that "their constituents want a balanced budget, (but) more rather than fewer services and lower rather than higher taxes."
Their own failing, the congressmen say, is not that they are unresponsive but that they are too responsive. Only their response too often is not to the general public but to organized lobbies, because members of those lobbies are the ones who write letters, show up at town meetings and vote. The others, including many of the loudest complainers, are home watching TV.
Have a nice day.
Jon Margolis is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.