Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The Infrastructure of Poverty

While poverty is a deep concern to me, I may often fit Joe Queenan’s description below whenever I try to blog about it:

“This is compassion by anecdote, as if warm feelings or righteous indignation ever helped anybody. The professionally compassionate, the industriously empathetic, never, ever get things right; the textures of poverty forever elude them.”

But Queenan, a humorist and critic, actually did grow up in poverty.  It is part of the most recent book of his that I’ve read entitled Closing Time, a memoir published last year.

The article he published this month in The Rotarian magazine, entitled The Inconvenient Truths About Poverty, is truly a must-read for everyone along the entire ideological spectrum.

Queenan is an equal opportunity critic and his brief article isn’t really just about the “industriously empathetic” such as myself.  His article is also about those who have hardened their hearts, to use a religious reference,” to those in poverty.

I haven’t been able to get the following description of poverty out of my head (don’t be tempted to skim it, please read the entire quote, then go back up, open the link and read his entire article):

“The philosophical infrastructure of poverty is rooted in an interlocking series of self-fulfilling prophecies. Poor people eat bad food, drink bad beverages, and ceaselessly make bad decisions, and these counterproductive activities are then used as an indictment of their moral character. Thus, the poor become the architects of their own destruction. Poverty is a dunce school where the old teach the young how to make bad decisions. Adults who have bad eating habits, adults who smoke, adults who have substance abuse problems teach young people how to acquire these bad habits. They lead by example. The acquired bad habits are then used as an indictment of the poor children when they themselves come of age.”

It’s primary campaign season and we can all identify with Queenan’s comment that “every time you think you have heard the dumbest thing you are ever going to hear in your lifetime, somebody steps right up to the plate and hits the next pitch 400 feet farther than you’ve ever seen anyone hit it before. A lot of these people work in television.”

Conservative, moderate or liberal, you’ll be well-served to open the link to this article and read it.  For the most part, it seems that the vast majority of elected decision-makers and policy-makers have little or no first-hand experience with poverty.

Many on the right seem blind and insensitive and even idiotic when it comes to solutions to poverty.  Many on the left, ironically, seem much too conservative and wedded to solutions that no longer seem to be working.

As an Independent, I listen carefully to thoughtful voices on the left and many on the right such as David Brooks who wrote last week that solutions “cannot be done by government alone, but they can’t be done without leadership from government.”  He further noted that the “current Republican policy of negativism, cut, cut, cut is not enough.”

To me, the American way is to once again embrace, with vigor, F.D.R.’s vow of “bold, persistent experimentation…to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another but above all, try something.”

Everyone concerned about poverty would be well served to seek out the perspective of people such as Joe Queenan who have actually been poor even if the truths are inconvenient and run counter to many commonly-held beliefs.

1 comment:

jayzenner said...

I agree the Queenan article is a must read. I read it online through the link that you offered. Sadly, the first comment was left by someone who identified himself as "jr" and tagged Queenlan as living in "fantasy land" and attributed poverty to a conspiracy between the lazy and liberal democrats. I guess there's more than one type of poverty. Besides financial poverty there's intellectual poverty and spiritual poverty. None of them are ennobling and all major religions and Rotary preach providing help to break the "vicious circle" Queenan mentions...for all types of poverty.