Politicians should see the faces of the poor

April 06, 1995|By WILEY A. HALL

Last month, Catholic bishops urged the nation's political leaders to fashion a welfare reform policy that "enhanced the lives and dignity" of poor people while recognizing the "diversity of problems" they face.

The bishops -- speaking through the administrative board of the U.S. Catholic Conference in Washington -- warned that rigid, punitive policies based on stereotypical portraits of the poor are more likely to hurt people than help them.

"As pastors, we seek to share our community's experiences in serving those in need," said the bishops in a prepared statement. "Poor people are not an abstract issue for us. They are sisters and brothers. They have names and faces. They are in our soup kitchens, our parishes and Catholic Charities agencies."

I think the bishops have raised an important point, one so obvious that many of us may have overlooked it. People who feel the most vengeful toward poor people probably do not know them. They know only stereotypes and caricatures -- the image of the laughing welfare queen promoted by some politicians and talk show radio hosts. Thus, we hear the demand for policies that treat poor people like naughty children who need to be caned until they learn to be responsible.

But those who work with the poor -- who know their names and see their faces -- urge a kinder, gentler, more individualized approach to welfare reform.

"It is the faces that keep us going," says Sister Mary Judith Schmelz, director of the Learning Bank on West Baltimore Street.

The Learning Bank is an adult literacy center located in one of the most desolate neighborhoods of the city; a community where rows of abandoned, boarded-up buildings alternate with rows of struggling households; where churches vie with liquor stores; where parents shepherd their school children around slump-shouldered drug addicts. Hundreds of adults in this community are illiterate. Hundreds of adults seek help each year.

"We know we are just scratching the surface here, and it is easy to get discouraged," Sister Mary Judith continues. "Except that when you see the miracle of changed lives, you realize that it is very, very important to touch the people you can touch. Each life is sacred."

The people working at the Learning Bank see a very different face than the stereotypes portrayed by some lawmakers in Washington and Annapolis. The workers see people who, in Sister Mary Judith's words, "are living on the edge economically, and face crisis after crisis." Yet, she says, those people also possess tremendous strength.

Donna Jones Stanley, executive director of Associated Black Charities, paints a similar portrait. Her organization, founded with the aid of the city's black clergy, helps focus the region's charitable giving on programs that strengthen families and promote economic self-sufficiency.

"Poor people work extremely hard just to survive, probably harder than anybody else," she says. "But when you fall behind you never catch up. Sometimes you need help, someone to provide structure. Everyone we see is striving to better themselves. But not everyone can do it alone."

"Most people can manage one tragedy, but when two tragedies hit at the same time, then another and another, people can be overwhelmed," says Lucy Steinitz, executive director of Jewish Family Services. "The Newt Gingriches of the world don't seem to understand that. They neatly pigeon-hole people, then go off and make blanket, across-the-board policies. That's not real people's lives."

I spoke with only a small cross-section of the people who work closest with those in need. But they agreed with Catholic bishops on several points: the need to respect human dignity; to fashion flexible programs that take into account the complicated problems faced by poor people and their families; and to recognize that most people want to be self-sufficient.

"We are talking about programs that simply reflect good common sense," says Ms. Stanley. "The question should be, 'What would you do if your mother were in this predicament?' I don't hear a lot of common sense coming out of Washington."

Neither do I -- perhaps because to some lawmakers, the poor do not have names and faces but are only pawns in a political game.

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