No patience with poor

December 26, 2005|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- If you can't talk politely about the poor during the Christmas season, when can you?

I'll take the chance that the bitter culture wars can be suspended for a day or two - call it a Christmas truce - so we can have an uplifting, if still spirited, debate about our responsibilities to the impoverished.

Though some self-serving ranters want us to believe in a phony "war on Christmas," most of us know that the season's deeper meaning has nothing to do with whether retailers hang banners saying "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays." It has much more to do with how we treat one another - including the most vulnerable among us.

So let's talk about the poor. Let's talk about those among us who cannot afford basic medical care or decent housing. Let's consider those who, despite working 40 hours or more a week, still can't afford the prescription drugs they need. Let's talk about those who join the Army just to get dental care for their children.

You don't want to hear about them? You think they're stuck at the margins because they're lazy or dumb or inclined to crime? You think America offers prosperity to any man or woman willing to work hard enough to get it?

Americans have always believed that. That idealism distinguishes us from Europeans, who are more likely to believe that class determines one's future, that pulling oneself up by the bootstraps just ruins good bootstraps. Those who abandoned their homes in the Old World to seek fortunes in the New had to be relentless optimists, hardy souls who could make their own way. While some failed, many others thrived.

Those who don't choose their parents wisely often find their achievements limited. This country is more class-oriented than many of us would like to believe. Academic research has shown that adult men are often mired in the same economic bracket their fathers were in.

Indeed, it's getting harder to climb the economic ladder. As the pace of globalization picks up and manufacturing jobs disappear - along with their benefits and pensions - it's increasingly difficult for those without college degrees to get ahead. And the price of a college education keeps going up.

But we have remarkably little patience with those who don't share our good fortune. A generation of politicians and pundits has told us that the poor are lazy and irresponsible and undeserving of our help. Indeed, trying to help them would only make them worse off, we're told.

So the last thing we should do is establish a broad social safety net that provides generous health care and raises the minimum wage and ensures decent housing for all. Why, any one of those things could prove absolutely ruinous to the poor!

That political philosophy - which claims to be a hardheaded compassion rather than the hard-hearted selfishness it really is - has become the conventional wisdom. But it's an odd thing for a nation that claims to be overwhelmingly Christian. There is nothing in the New Testament that says helping the poor merely makes them worse off.

Many of us may believe there is, of course. In the August 2005 issue of Harper's, Bill McKibben wrote: "Three-quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that `God helps those who help themselves.' That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture.

"The thing is, not only is Franklin's wisdom not biblical, it's counter-biblical. Few ideas could be further from the Gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor."

That's a theology not heard much these days from any pulpit. But it's worth thinking about.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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