Figments and facts

March 23, 1995|By Jack L. Levin

THE CONVENTIONAL wisdom, distilled from post-mortems on last fall's mid-term election, is that the determining factor was the raging of the great white male.

Translation: Many of the working white poor have seen their barely adequate income actually decline in the past few years of general prosperity. They are the boats stuck on the bottom in the rising tide.

How different is today's crusader for the Newt Deal from his passionate counterpart of 62 years ago who championed the New Deal. As one of the white male Franklin D. Roosevelt revolutionaries of 1932, I do not claim that we were more virtuous than the Gingrich gang. Just vastly different.

Then, we voted mainly for ourselves; today's angry white males vote against others.

Then, the majority did not vote to deny help to needy racial minorities. Because then the majority members saw themselves, not those others, as the needy, or soon-to-be needy. Government was then perceived as possibly rescuing us, with someone else -- the "economic royalists" -- paying the bill. In 1994, it was a different story. Most voters were against the rescue of them by us; the hard-working taxpayers rebuffed the "freeloaders."

Then, it was taken for granted that the white male, especially the WASP male, would be first in line for government jobs and largess, and would not have to compete against women and minorities (including Jews who were still excluded from certain professions).

Then, we voted for laws to protect that part of the nation which was "ill-fed, ill-clothed and ill-housed." Many of today's white males would demolish those laws, seeing themselves as benefactors instead of putative beneficiaries. The truth is that most of what they voted against exists only in their fevered imagination.

Here are some of the figments and facts:

Figment: Most of the poor are black or assorted other minorities.

Fact: Two-thirds of those living below the poverty level, according to government statistics for 1992, are white: 24 million out of about 36 million.

Figment: Most on welfare are able-bodied adults who refuse to work.

Fact: Most of the 5 million families on Aid to Families with Dependent Children consist of children, the frail elderly and the disabled who can't just be ordered to "get off your butt and go get a job."

Figment: Welfare mothers don't want to work.

Fact: Most do have some history of paid employment, which has usually required few skills, provided low wages and benefits, if any, and offered little incentive to continue.

Figment: AFDC families stay on welfare for years; it is a "way of life."

Fact: Over half of all AFDC families were on the rolls for two years or less; and only 17.66 percent have received aid without interruption for five years or more.

Figment: Welfare costs are exorbitant.

Fact: In Maryland, welfare accounts for only 2 percent of the state's General Fund. The maximum monthly benefit for a famly of three is $366, which has to cover rent, utilities, non-food items, clothing, household furnishings, transportation, etc.

Figment: AFDC mothers are inadequate parents; orphanages would do a better job.

Fact: Much of this attitude is concealed racism.

Figment: Most teen-age mothers are nymphomaniacs.

Fact: Most teen-age pregnancies are accidental.

These facts are lost on those who want to believe otherwise. As "old stuff," they are seldom mentioned in the media, while the figments are repeated ad nauseam on endless talk shows.

Orphanages are no more of a solution to the problem of neglected children than they were in the time of Oliver Twist.

The transition of British society from rural to industrial brought large-scale social problems: exploitation of children and women in the factories, workshops and mines. Today, society is moving from industrial to high-tech with similar dislocations: poverty and destitution for the illiterate and uneducable.

It must be remembered that the conditions chronicled by Charles Dickens happened when Britain was the super power of its time as we are of ours. It was preoccupied with its power, not its people. Could that happen here?

British writer Samuel Johnson emphasized the fact that is apparently overlooked by Newt Gingrich: "A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization."

So did John F. Kennedy in his 1961 Inaugural Address: "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."

But the questions remain: Can we be as humane in helping their children their elderly, sick, disabled, handicapped and unfortunate as we once were in helping our own? Does charity begin -- and end -- at home? Is it a valid function of government only when it helps us, never when it helps them?

With all of our unequally shared tax burdens and sacifices, this nation still excels in the consumption of goods and services. Now if we could only raise our standard of giving as high as our standard of living.

Jack L. Levin writes from Baltimore.

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