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The Generation Poverty Skipped 

Disappearance of poverty from national politics reflects a deep and abiding cultural amnesia

A friend who teaches college art history complains bitingly about her students' ignorance of the Bible. How can aspiring artists understand Renaissance art -- Michelangelo's "David" or Raphael's Virgin Mary -- without knowing the major prophets, saints and martyrs?

Her complaint is not about the students' lack of religious fervor, but their cultural illiteracy. Schooled in neither church nor classroom in the Judeo-Christian stories that still shape our culture, they take refuge in ignorance: Why do we have to learn this stuff? We're here to paint, they say.

I thought of my friend's complaint while watching the Democrats in Los Angeles this summer. Challenging George W. Bush's vague but ardent claim of conservative compassion, President Clinton traced his party's legacy of compassion from FDR to LBJ to Jimmy Carter, who's still pounding nails into Habitat for Humanity homes.

While Clinton's speech was a substantive response to Bush's, I suspected that Clinton's homage to Johnson and Roosevelt held as little meaning for much of Clinton's audience as my friend's allusions to St. Paul held for her art students. The reason? Much of Clinton's audience no longer has any understanding of poverty -- whether working with the poor, being poor, or even sharing a bus seat with someone poor.

Nearly half the country is younger than 35, and the percentage of Americans who can remember Black Friday or the War on Poverty is on the decline. Those coming up behind them view poverty through a very different lens -- if they view it at all. Not only have today's young adults come of age during an unprecedented time of peace and prosperity, their social history has largely been informed by such leaders as Ronald Reagan and Jesse Ventura, not Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. And, as America's class segregation has sharpened over the past 20 years, today's newest generation of affluent adults has had very little opportunity to fully appreciate their good fortune.

This shift in perspective is already having an impact on national politics; even the Democrats understand that talk of noble causes like ending hunger or combating illiteracy does little to rally the voters. During the first presidential debate, the only mention of poverty from either candidate came when Al Gore suggested that welfare reform should be extended to the fathers of poor children.

You could say that the disappearance of poverty from national politics is merely the product of a prosperity-induced callousness or the stupor of affluence, but I suspect the reason is more complicated than that. Call it national amnesia.


Life lessons

Last year, I taught a seminar on poverty to a dozen college freshmen at the University of Minnesota. Early in the semester, when I asked what they knew of the Great Depression, a lone student raised his hand. Jobs were kind of hard to get, he'd heard. Unemployment was high.

Having been reared on family stories of lard sandwiches, failed businesses, and families doubling up because of lost jobs, I was amazed. Then I did a little subtraction: For these students, the Great Depression was nearly as remote in time as President McKinley and the Spanish-American War were to me at their age.

Their grandparents might have been children during the Depression, but they didn't talk about it. Perhaps, like my sons' grandparents, they live far away and want to spend their limited family time spoiling their grandchildren with miniature golf and ice cream, not recounting hard times. High school history these days does a poor job of filling in the gaps. Jay Leno recently demonstrated that the average schmo doesn't have a clue who those guys carved on Mt. Rushmore might be. Even Harvard grads are a bit vague about the details.

My students, all white, from small towns and suburbs in the Midwest, had concern, or at least curiosity, about poverty. They just didn't know much. Some were simply baffled. The nation's been on an economic roll since they were in fourth grade. Minnesota's unemployment rate has been less than three percent for years. In that context, a 12 percent poverty rate -- nearly twice that for children -- is indeed a puzzle.

The students' own encounters with poor people had been few and largely unsympathetic. One recalled an old guy who lived in a shack outside her small town. She couldn't write more; she had never really met him. A student whose mother worked with women leaving welfare had donated her old Chevy to a battered women's shelter, then learned that the recipient totaled it on her way home from a bar. "Next time, I'll sell my car to someone who'll take care of it," the student wrote with fresh anger.

An athlete recalled going to a hockey practice at age nine, where a man with dirty hands and mismatched boots asked him for a dollar, then another. The boy gave him $2. A decade later, he remembered that he'd had no money left for a snack and that his mother later scolded: Don't talk to strangers.

Only one student had known some poor people well enough to grasp the complexity of their troubles. He'd worked with schizophrenic homeless men through his Catholic high school. When he wrote of his experience, he could call the men by name. Ralph might have slept in doorways, muttered at voices in his head, and refused all help except food and occasional doses of Haldol, but he'd also laughed at jokes, craved chocolate and embedded himself in this student's moral memory.


Interdependence and mutual responsibility denied

In the main, though, my students' stories reflected little of what I'd learned about poverty firsthand during the four years I spent writing about poverty and welfare as a newspaper reporter. Like most people who spend time with those at the bottom of the economic ladder, I know that poverty generally has a mixture of causes.

Troubled kids; unstable housing; depression and social isolation; mistrust of birth control and authority; lack of discipline or talent for good jobs; old cars or no car; a weakness for crack or booze; lousy schools; Byzantine welfare rules; bad attitudes; faithless partners; jobs without sick days, health care, decent wages, or upward mobility all conspire to keep one in place. Not to mention race, age, gender, how you speak and how you smell.

Often, a person I'd interviewed would get a job and make a start, only to face some crisis and be thrown back onto welfare. Learning about this absence of personal reserves -- no relative to watch sick kids, no friend to drive them to work when the car broke down, no one to lend them $50 for a uniform, no confidence that they could clear this hurdle and keep running -- was an education for one raised with brisk, middle-class resolve, and a platoon of friends and family to call on when trouble came.

Of course, like my students, I didn't know all this at 18, either. But the times injected sympathy like Salk vaccine into its young. The civil rights movement; trenchant accounts of poor Americans by Michael Harrington and Homer Bigart; the national will to give adequate food, health care, housing, and jobs to poor people made us all reformers -- at least until the riots in Watts and Detroit, excesses of the welfare rights movement, and the inflationary pressures of the 1970s began to erode that consensus.

I am worried about the impact of those memories fading from our national consciousness the way the Depression's lard sandwiches already have. The loss of our collective memory of poverty -- with the lessons it offers about temperance, thrift, compassion, social obligations, and the randomness of misfortune -- has serious implications, not just for the Democrats, whose political roots lie in such history, but for the country as a whole.

Over time, an absence of concern for the poor could erode public support for the great safety nets of old age -- Social Security and Medicare. Why should we support old people if they didn't save enough when they were young? In foreign affairs, it could make us dangerously stingy and isolationist. Why give foreign aid to hungry children in Africa? There's always Malthus. Since minorities have higher poverty rates, lack of knowledge or concern about poverty will retard efforts to bridge our continuing racial divides.

A democratic society relies on interdependence and mutual responsibility to work well. Just as poor people have an obligation to work and contribute to society, the prosperous have an obligation to open doors, reward effort and share their wealth to ensure that people who work hard -- at whatever wage level -- can live decently and put their children in good schools.

But without grandparents to nag about starving children in Africa, developing that sense of social obligation in future generations is going to take some work from all of us.


Maslow was wrong

In the 1960s, psychologist Abraham Maslow popularized the notion that there was a clear and orderly pattern to human development. Once people are freed from satisfying basic needs for food, shelter, security, and love, Maslow argued, they would be driven by an almost biological need to transcend their own ordinary, daily lives and help others realize their potential.

By Maslow's logic, young Americans -- the most prosperous generation ever -- should be launching a new renaissance of public service and philanthropy, turning their attention outward, fighting injustice, and advocating for the disadvantaged. But it's clear from the students in my class that prosperity alone isn't enough to instill Maslow's notion of noblesse oblige in the young.

In my seminar class, there were idealists -- but some came with a "90s twist. "I want to help people," one student told me, "but I want a good income." In researching career possibilities, she was delighted to find a posting on some Web site for an executive director of a children's health care project in Los Angeles. Annual salary: $120,000. Never mind that most people working for nonprofits will be lucky to earn half that. She'd seen the Promised Land: a chance to do good and make good simultaneously.

Thanks to the work of Alexander Astin, a distinguished professor at UCLA, we know that this student is not alone in her ambition. Since 1966, Astin has been asking thousands of college freshmen each fall what they want from life. It's a kind of collective freshman essay, telling the rest of us, year-by-year, what matters most to the nation's 18-year-olds.

Freshmen have grown steadily less idealistic and interested in politics over the decades. In 1998, only 17 percent of college freshmen expressed interest in "influencing the political structure.'' Less than a third identified "promoting racial understanding'' as an important life goal. In Astin's survey, being "well-off financially" has risen to the top of students' list of life objectives. It's twice as important as developing a "philosophy of life" -- that's essentially a reversal from the late 1960s.

It's tempting to blame the young for callowness. But that's as disingenuous as Hollywood producers labeling violent films and video games for those over 17 while marketing them to middle-schoolers. Our children learn their values from us, after all, and those of us who marched on Washington and knocked on doors for Clean Gene haven't carried the habit of activism into adulthood.

It's not hard to see why. With two parents working or divorced parents managing alone, the last thing most of us crave is a trip to the ghetto to ladle soup to ungrateful panhandlers. Our kids are more likely to see us staying late at the office, working out at the gym or rushing through dinner and hauling them to soccer practice than signing up for political committee assignments.

From that sheltered vantage point, too, our kids are less likely to see any need for volunteering in a soup kitchen or electing socially concerned legislators, much less interest. Chauffeured like royalty, our kids are the center of the universe, and the hardships of poverty are as unimaginable to them as life without electricity.


Reality check

In September, the Urban Institute's National Center for Charitable Statistics released a state study on philanthropy, comparing people's wealth to their charitable contributions. Much to many people's surprise, it wasn't ultra-rich Massachusetts that topped the list of giving, but dirt-poor Mississippi. Massachusetts, in fact, ranked dead last, with its residents' average donation half that of those made by people in Mississippi. Overall, residents of all the nation's poorest states are also those who give the largest percentage of their income to charity.

Analysts chalked up the difference in giving to Yankee thriftiness and Southern hospitality. But I think there's another answer: Our sense of obligation to the less fortunate often stems from our proximity to them. Live in Mississippi and poverty is hard to miss, but live in Weston, Mass., and your Valhalla will rarely be disturbed by the sight of guilt-inducing poor folks.

In most of middle-class America today, suburban sprawl has exacerbated our isolation by class. Thirty-mile commutes and pee-wee baseball champions leave us alone in our cars, cursing our fellow drivers, for hundreds of hours a year. Cloistered in our homogenous planned developments -- blissfully free of such threats to property values as affordable apartments -- we're unlikely to bump into anyone on food stamps, except maybe our housekeepers. And it's not as though our homeowners' associations are campaigning to take Section 8 vouchers, whose struggling recipients might soften our hearts if they actually lived next door.

Thanks to this kind of social stratification, it's possible today for students like those in my class to graduate from public schools without ever rubbing shoulders with someone whose thrift-store clothes are actually a necessity. When kids do have the rare opportunity to mingle with those on the wrong side of the tracks, though, the experience can have revelatory effects.

Indeed, my students thought most deeply about poverty during 20-hour internships with four agencies that work with poor people. No one complained about the assignment, except to worry about how it would be graded and about venturing into bad neighborhoods. "This is the part of town my dad told me to stay away from," one student wrote after his first visit to a drop-in center for homeless men.

The internships gave them a wider set of encounters with poor people and a chance to compare their own circumstances. One student sat in on a conference with a 21-year-old resident of a charity-run residential hotel as a counselor warned the young woman that she had to start saving money or she'd lose her room.

"Fine, I'll leave," the resident snapped.

The student wrote later: "It's like me arguing with my mother except that in the end, I usually choose the right thing."

Another student described a homeless shelter -- the cheap soap in gaudy pink; the bulky security guard checking for weapons; a young woman's bursting pride at her tidy, bare room, shared with two other women and smaller than the student's own dorm room. She was astonished to meet a grandfatherly man consigned to a residential hotel because his late wife's medical bills had ruined him financially. He defied her image of who is poor.

A third student, working at a Minneapolis soup kitchen, noted that the children wore clothes that would have been fashionable a decade earlier -- Smurfs sweat pants, Little Mermaid T-shirts. Recalling how the kids who wore outdated clothes were taunted in her junior high, she was suddenly ashamed of her designer clothes and tried to fold her jacket and tug on her jeans to hide the labels.

In that moment, she understood clearly the difference between merely being clothed and being clothed in a way that enables you to fit in. She saw firsthand how even good intentions can have unexpected consequences when you don't know the recipients of your charity; those Smurf sweats were likely donated by middle-class folks who thought the Salvation Army was a better place than the closets of their nieces or nephews for their cast-offs.

My students also saw spendthrift ways. Young women living in a charity-run hotel carried cell phones and had professional manicures. A habit of instant gratification, the hotel manager explained. Low-level, poorly paid shelter workers gladly dumped the dirtiest work on the college kids.

In class, we examined what faith-based charities could offer -- deep commitment by workers; a supportive community; and a conviction that there is value, purpose, and the possibility of redemption in every person. Should government get out of the helping business and force needy people to turn to religious charities for help? I asked. Or should poor people be allowed to choose between public agencies and private charities?

"Why should they get to choose? They're on welfare," said one student.

"The guys I know really resent the places where they have to go to church before they can have a meal," said a student who worked with homeless men. "It doesn't help to force them."

Another student reminded the class of what we'd read of the 20th century, when private charities often made arbitrary and cruel judgments about who deserved help and who did not.

Classroom debates were vastly enriched by the students' internship experiences. Should homeless people have to work in order to get a bunk at a city homeless shelter? Should the state take their kids away if they don't? If parents are unsuccessful or irresponsible, what is owed to their children? And how can you help children without engaging the adults in their lives?

The nation would benefit from such discussions. General promises to reduce poverty or mist the landscape with compassionate conservatism don't accomplish that.


The other invisible hand

In my class, one bright student focused her final project on her grandfather. He had emigrated from Germany as a child; worked his way through a Catholic high school during the Depression; and, through diligence, family support and religious faith, built a small business and provided college educations for his seven children.

This student, a business major, was a fervent believer in the conservative orthodoxy -- hard work as the answer to bad luck and hard times. Her grandfather was Exhibit A. For the second draft of her paper, I asked her to look more closely at the role government had played in his achievements.

Sure enough, the National Guard provided her grandfather work during the Depression. He saw his first dentist when he joined the Army for World War II. The GI bill allowed him to be trained as an auto mechanic and start his own business. The Veterans Administration helped him and his wife buy the house they'd live in for 50 years. Now Social Security and Medicare help support them in retirement.

Without such context, it's easy to ignore the role luck plays in most of our lives, and how government often lurks there, quietly helping with child-care credits or student loans, work programs or pensions. With that context, she could paint a fuller portrait of the ancestor she so admired. "I guess I could support government programs,'' she told the class during her final presentation. "If they involve work. People have to give something back."

Giving back applies to more than poor citizens. My students had served meals to the hungry, produced a newsletter for welfare recipients, updated a guide to services for homeless men -- a modest antidote to the much lamented disengagement and materialism among college freshmen.

I was heartened to learn from UCLA's Astin that there is a growing emphasis among high schools and colleges on this type of service learning, where academic work includes some engagement with the community. As I discovered, it doesn't take a recession to revive our national dialogue about poverty.

Teachers can also foster such talk by reading history with their students. See how charitable dormitories were considered a great advancement in 1900 because newsboys could sleep there for a trifle and have some chance at schooling. Discover orphanages filled with children of living parents who couldn't afford to keep them. Read of old people living with their children, their only support.

Those lessons of the past can help ensure that the present prosperity doesn't leave our kids spoiled rotten. And, in four years, when the Democrats again return to the nation's TV sets and invoke their party's legacy of compassion, a few more viewers might actually know what they're talking about.

Lynda McDonnell writes for Washington Monthly where this article first appeared.

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