We might all be poor

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1937 Plymouth
a 1937 Plymouth

I remember it very well.

Our neighborhood grocer came to the side door of our side of the duplex facing Defiance, Ohio’s Fifth Street.

He was there to take possession of our 1937 two-door Plymouth. I guess Mom and Dad had gotten behind paying the grocery bill.

I don’t recall Dad giving the guy the car keys. But he must have. Nor do I remember any explanation from Mom or Dad about our tight finances. I don’t even know whether we thought of ourselves as poor. Surely not. Bridge, Elks Club, golf club, poker night, fancy restaurants, rich friends – they traveled in the city’s right circles.

Yet there was that overdue grocery bill.

What brought this family embarrassment to mind was an article by Christopher Jencks in The New York Review of Books looking at books on the legacy of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Judging from the article, you’d have say that did much to reduce the scourge of poverty in America. Programs that grew out of LBJ’s call helped millions of people. Still do. From food stamps to Head Start to Title I, each one made a difference.

Social Security benefits were raised. I well recall when a man in a dark suit came to my grandparents’ home in Latty, Ohio, where I spent many weeks in the summer.

Mom and Tom, as we always called them, got signed up that day for Social Security. I bet these Herbert Hoover Republicans didn’t bat an eye as they enlisted in Democrat FDR’s anti-poverty program for the elderly.

Food stamps measurably improved the nutrition of recipients. Meantime, it’s hard to see evidence of immediate academic success from Head Start. Yet over the long-term, as the kids grew into adulthood, the benefits are striking.

Those in Head Start and similar early-childhood programs are more likely to finish high school, more likely to attend and finish college and more likely to hold jobs and stay married.

Medicaid, yet another initiative from the anti-poverty era, has meant better health care not only for parents in poverty but for their children as well.

But Americans hardly can declare victory in the War on Poverty. Visit any city and you’ll encounter folks living on the street. When we lived a year in Washington, D.C., my wife Toni and I daily encountered people begging at street corners and at the entrances to the Metro subway. This was in 1992.

Today, as I was preparing to write about poverty in the U.S., I discovered a Washington Post column citing how a few states recently have moved to further restrict how people getting food stamps are permitted to use them. So recipients can’t pay for soft drinks, steak, potato chips with food stamps.

“The poor you always have with you,” Jesus is quoted having said when his disciples proposed selling an expensive ointment and giving the money to the poor. I’ve heard people cite this verse as an reason to oppose anti-poverty programs.

What I think he meant, assuming the historical Jesus actually said this, is that we always have the responsibility to help the poor. Otherwise, here you would have Jesus and his disciples freely accepting the charity of followers. I prefer my interpretation.

Mom and Dad both worked all the years I was growing up. I was in college when they bought a house of their own. Through college and for years after that, I often found money tight.

Even middle-class families such as mine can fall into poverty. A job lost, a long-term illness, major medical bills – one’s fortunes can take a sudden fall.

We might resent that some our of taxes go to help the poor. We might want to force them to live more responsible lives. But is this a free country or isn’t it?

We might think we’re making it on our own. If we believe that, we deceive ourselves. The truth is that we depend on each other. We should conduct our lives accordingly.

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