Poverty fight needs coalition of the willing

September 30, 2005|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- I'm delighted to hear people jawboning about poverty again, even if it took a couple of hurricanes to get us to do it. I also wonder how many Americans really know what poverty is.

Basically, poverty is a profound lack of money.

Or, as my father used to put it, "po'," which apparently meant that you were too poor to afford the "O" or the "R".

"Are we po'?," I asked the old man.

"Naw," said the principal breadwinner of our household. "We're not po'. We're just broke."

What was the difference?

"Po' folks don't know when they're gonna eat again," he said. "I have a job. When I get paid, I won't be broke no mo'."

I had loving, hard-working and dependable parents at home, which meant I was blessed. We had an optimism about our future that kept us from feeling as poor as many of the po' folks whom I have covered during my decades as a journalist.

Optimism or a lack of it separates the "po'," the long-term poor, from those who are "just broke."

President Lyndon B. Johnson declared "unconditional war on poverty in America" in the 1960s. Two decades later, President Ronald Reagan ridiculed Mr. Johnson's challenge with, "Poverty won."

Fortunately, Mr. Reagan was wrong. We've won many victories, thanks to some anti-poverty reforms from both parties, but poverty doesn't quit.

Poverty declined sharply from 22.4 percent in 1959 to a low of 11.1 percent in 1973, according to the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan. After a few years of minor fluctuations, the poverty rate rose steadily in the 1980s to 15.1 percent in 1993. Poverty then declined to 11.3 percent by 2000. Since then it has risen to 12.7 percent in 2004.

Overall, we've made a lot of progress against poverty since the 1960s, thanks to a combination of government and private sector reforms. They include new job and educational opportunities for blacks and other minorities, increased help for the elderly, and the Earned Income Tax Credit, a break supported by the right and the left that effectively gave an income raise to low-wage earners.

Yet, after Hurricane Katrina made America's usually invisible poor visible again in New Orleans, I've heard people repeat Mr. Reagan's glib pronouncement, as if Americans fighting poverty had not scored any victories at all.

The poverty challenges we face now are not quite the same as those we have faced in the past. What program, public or private, can prevent those who are merely "broke" from sliding into the predicament of long-term "po" folks? How do you cure a loss of hope and a poverty of optimism?

Folks on the left want government to spend more time and money on our urban poor. Folks on the right want the poor to produce fewer out-of-wedlock babies. As National Review editor Rich Lowry has suggested, these do not have to be opposing values. In a new anti-poverty war, such values could be a grand left-right coalition of the willing.

We have needs. We need to set realistic goals for further progress in liberating the poor from dependency, and find realistic ways to achieve those goals.

We need to avoid stereotyping all of the poor as looters, snipers, drug addicts and welfare cheats.

We need to give special attention to gender differences, such as the way our young males of all races are failing academically and economically at a faster rate than our young females.

We need to encourage those teachers, preachers, social workers, neighborhood associations and others who have worked directly and effectively with teen-agers and their families.

We who have succeeded in life need to be divinely dissatisfied with tax breaks and other government policies that widen our rich-poor divide to a canyon that resemble a Third World country.

And we African Americans, I might add, need to transfer some of our alarm about the racial divide, which has narrowed in recent years, over to the class divide which has widened between haves and have-nots within our own communities.

Then the poor won't have to be so po' no mo'.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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