Fire illustrates how poverty makes world cold and deadly

March 06, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

In 1994, in America, the house was lighted by candles.

That's where we begin.

The electricity was cut off at the Baltimore rowhouse. Candles took the place of light bulbs. A gas oven may have been the only source of heat.

We don't know exactly what happened, except that nine people died. A candle must have fallen over. Fire raced -- yes, it does race -- through the overcrowded house, once teeming with life and soon filled with bodies, mostly of children, including an infant.

We saw the picture of the veteran firefighter wiping away tears. We heard the word tragedy solemnly intoned on the 11 o'clock news.

There were no smoke detectors, we would be told, as if that were the story. It is not.

The story is how some people live in America today and what is to be done.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. took the first step, saying it will find a way to resume power through April 30 for the approximately 3,000 area households fighting the winter without The company will figure out later who pays when.

That's a good policy. Obviously, it shouldn't have taken nine lives to put it in place. But it's too easy to put the blame on BG&E, which is just a business after all. You don't expect utilities to come equipped with consciences.

Somebody must get the blame, though.

There are those who will want to accuse the adults who lived in the house. You bring children into the world, you must keep them fed and warm.

Of course, some adults don't get this basic job done. Then what? Because if anyone is blameless, it's the children. It's the infant who died in his crib because bills weren't paid.

The argument can be made that keeping children in a house without electricity is a form of neglect. You don't take children away from parents because they're poor, though. That isn't how we work in America.

So, who pays?

Under the new Clinton budget proposal, a federal program to help low-income families pay their heating bills would be cut in half. This heralds a trend that nobody can mistake.

We are in the new age of individual responsibility. The new truth in public policy is that government can't do everything. The evidence is all around us that much of what the government tries to do, it botches. The welfare system is often offered as proof.

Look around. The cycle of poverty is real. The underclass is real. Teen pregnancy is real. Violence is real.

Nothing we're doing now seems to be working.

So, let's change. Let's find solutions that actually help. Let's change welfare. Better yet, let's get rid of it. Let's dismantle the entire system and start over.

But in the process, we must be careful.

Take health-care reform as an example. There are about 200 programs competing with Clinton's. I have no idea which one would work the best. Neither does anyone else.

Most people attacking the Clinton plan care only how it affects them. I know I'm up late worrying about how the plan might reduce the profits of insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

Managed care? Single payer? Democratic plan? Republican plan?

I saw in a poll that 76 percent of the people said they didn't understand the arguments on any side. I know only one thing: Everyone should have health insurance. That's where we have to start. That's what's important.

And what's important in figuring how to deal with poverty is how to make sure children don't die in rowhouse fires because their family can't afford to pay the electric bill.

Right now, 20 percent of American children live at or below the poverty line.

That's a number that cannot be believed. It's a number that must be believed.

The new idea in treating poverty is something like tough love. The world is tough, and maybe you've been dealt a bad hand, but things will never be better for you unless you take responsibility for yourself.

That's an appealing message.

But it's one that makes it easier to ignore some other essential truths.

Children must have homes.

Children must have heat in those homes.

Children must have food in their bellies.

Children must have schools that actually educate them.

And somebody has to pay.

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