Sunday, May 13, 2012

What It Means To Be Poor


My father knew. He was born in Coney Island in 1915 to a frequently out-of-work  tailor and his 20 year old emigrant wife who walked across Russia at the age of 6 to the port of Odessa. After skipping 3 grades and graduating high school at age 15 (an apparently common practice at the time) my Dad got a job with the local sanitation department and went to Brooklyn College at night. My grandmother walked door -to-door in their Italian Jewish neighborhood to beg the $17 he needed for books. It took him eight years to graduate. Then came the war, a chance to get out of New York and build a small business (which he hated) and the apex of his life's achievements, a house on Buzzard's Bay. Despite his financial success the Depression left him with a permanent gnawing anxiety about money that inserted itself into our lives in intermittent, unpredictable ways, like deciding one year that we could no longer afford pizza on Sunday nights.

So what I know about being poor I learned from his stories around the dinner table and from books. I grew up in a fancy house (at least by the local standard), ate well, wore clothes bought from the town's best haberdashery, went to overnight summer camp, graduated from private college and public medical school on cheap loans provided entirely by the government, and took my happy place among the 1%. In my professional life I take care of a lot of poor people, but I know almost nothing, I'm ashamed to say, about their hopes, dreams, aspirations or frustrations.

So when you talk about helping the poor, I say certainly, but how?  No one seems to agree on how to do it. One school of thought (mostly from the left) argues that poverty is simply a lack of money, and that good jobs would be enough. Others believe that the poor are so by choice, or indifference, and so should be left to fend for themselves. The former notion seems to me well meaning but fatally incomplete, and the later reprehensibly savage.

Here, for what it's worth, are 5 ideas that make sense to me.

1) A year of compulsory national service for everyone sometime between the ages of 18-25. This was John McCain's idea. Absolutely no exceptions except disqualifying physical or mental disability. Military service would only be one option. Why do I see this as antipoverty program? For one, it would bind together a country that feels increasingly fragmented, as it would produce a shared experience and common sense of purpose for all. For poor kids it could offer opportunities in training or remediation at a point in their lives when such steps would still matter, and provide a notion that things can be different. You and I did better economically than our parents in no small part because they instilled in us the notion that it was possible.

2) Engage and support the encouraging decline in teenage birth rates by any practical, morally defensible means. From the little reading I've done, the single greatest indicator of lifelong poverty for a child is the age of the mother at the birth of her 1st child. The succeeding children in such families turn out to be equally condemned.

3) Grow the economy

4) Grow the economy

5) Grow the economy

How to accomplish tasks  4,5 and 6 I leave to you.


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