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Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011 09:47 pm

Who are the poor?

My favorite scene in Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist occurs in the second chapter. Oliver Twist is living with several dozen juveniles in a workhouse, all suffering “the tortures of slow starvation” and “so voracious and wild with hunger” that one large boy mentions his urge to eat a smaller boy. This simply will not do; therefore, the boys draw lots to identify which one will implement a practical solution. Oliver Twist wins, or loses, the draw.

 Oliver approaches the house’s master, a “fat, healthy man,” holds up his empty bowl, and utters these audacious, rebellious words: “Please, sir, I want some more.”

 Shock and awe follow, with reactions segregated along class lines. Oliver is beaten on the head with a ladle, the master rushes to inform his wealthy bosses of this outrage, and Mr. Limbkins, a well-fed gentleman who sits in the highest chair, declares, “I know that boy will be hung.”

 I’m reminded of this fictional scene as I consider our nation’s response to the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual report on poverty. Many political candidates and citizens now are engaged in a contest to utter the most callous, repugnant characterization of other humans. They possibly possess “shriveled hearts,” a phrase I borrow from civil rights activist Bob Zellner.

 To judge this contest’s participants, we must mimic the self-esteem movement and give everyone a trophy. Participants might win a debate or capture the television camera’s attention, but they are inhumane losers in the game of life. We learn again that some leaders reveal a deficit of decency.

 Aren’t you troubled that we rarely hear directly from our poor? We hear from many people who think the worst of them, who “explain” that they are lazy or lacking other moral virtues. But we rarely hear one of these critics mention that the poor often are hungry, sick, humiliated and frightened.

 Who are our poor, anyway? If you listen to the loudest voices, you might conclude that these people are illegal immigrants. You might conclude that most have dark skin pigmentation. Regarding poor whites, many citizens apparently have concluded that this phenomenon occurs only because of the election of a man with an unusual name.

 Fortunately, the U.S. Census Bureau, yet another competent government agency that gets no respect, did not stop at the announcement that our official poverty rate for 2010 is 15.1 percent and 46.2 million of our people are poor. The bureau’s report also details who those people are.

 For children, the poverty rate is 22 percent. For adults between 18 and 64, it is 13.7 percent. For seniors, it is 9.0 percent. More than 9.1 million poor people live in the Midwest.

 Looking at ethnicity is tricky because of the fluidity of self-identification and category definitions – people of Hispanic origins, for example, are counted in two different categories. Still, this data is educational. There are 31.6 million “White” or 19.6 million “White, not Hispanic” people living in poverty; that’s a poverty rate of either 13.0 percent or 9.9 percent. There are 10.7 million “Black” people (a 27.4 percent poverty rate), 1.7 million “Asian” people, and at least 13.2 million “Hispanic origin” people in poverty.

 One fact shines brightly in the data: two, or possibly three, white people live in poverty for every black person. Many black-majority areas in the United States are suffering terribly, but they are not solely causing the strains on local, state and federal budgets. Poverty is crushing dreams and ruining lives across all ethnic cohorts.

 Pandering sound bites will not change that reality. Years ago, we should have set aside the self-indulgent tantrums, agreed on a comprehensive, multi-decade strategy to strengthen the economy, and started the long, hard implementation of our plan.

Anything less is not real governance; it is political fiction.

Nick Capo, associate dean and associate professor of English at Illinois College, writes as a public scholar and private citizen.
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