A fellow called the other day from Atlanta to take issue with something I had written. The caller works with "street people" and he admonished me for making a distinction between new street people, victims of the current recession, and old street people, victims of earlier hard times, personal or otherwise. They are both, he said, poor and miserable.
After that eye-opening call, it seemed the only poor people I read about or saw on television were the New Poor--people thrown out of work by the current recession. They have become the rage, the new media darlings. That very night, in fact, I saw a television interview with two unemployed auto workers, both of whom had plummeted from the middle to the lower class and from optimism to what seemed like depression.
The newspapers, too, are full of those kinds of stories. We read tales of highly educated professionals who are now unable to find work. They meet in self-help groups and when the time comes they tell their stories to reporters. And heart-breaking stories they are. I would not want to change places with them for a minute.
But in a sense, the New Poor (some of whom really are not poor) have crowded out the Old Poor. The New Poor are so much more photogenic, so much more articulate, so much more like you and me (especially if you or me happen to be white) and so much more threatening. What happened to them could happen to anyone. They are poor through no fault of their own. They are the undeserving poor.
But that makes the Old Poor seem like the deserving poor--as if they are poor because they deserve to be. They are not poor out of bad luck--because the economy has collapsed, because some assembly line somewhere has stopped rolling. Instead, they may be poor because they are uneducated or undereducated, because they can't really read, because they don't have the slightest idea of how to get a job, because they are unwed mothers, because they are chained to dope or booze or the sad hope that if they do nothing for themselves, something will be done for them.
If the recession has done anything, it has managed to obscure the plight of the Old Poor. We have concentrated so mightily on the New Poor, that we can forget that their plight has been the plight of a lot of Americans all along. Only the New Poor, armed with education or whatever it is that once got them a job, has something the Old Poor never had and still does not have--hope. For the Old Poor, the economy is never going to turn around.
In a sense, of course, this is a racial thing. So many of the Old Poor are black and for them poverty really is structural. It is not that the industries that they were dependent on have collapsed, it is rather that in many cases it is their families that have collapsed. In 1980, 40 percent of all black families were headed by a single woman. And while the psychological consequences to children raised by a single parent might be exaggerated, the economic consequences are not. Mostly, they will be poor.
Maybe the tendency to ignore the Old Poor is in itself racial--yet another form of discrimination. Maybe, though, it just reflects the fact that the New Poor vote, that they are a political constituency, whereas the Old Poor simply is not. It does not register and it does not vote.
Maybe overlooking the Old Poor is another way of recognizing that this poverty is so difficult to deal with, not to mention expensive, that no one quite knows how. Or maybe we have come to blame the poor themselves for their plight. No assembly line stopped for them. No recession did them in. In many cases, the infrastructure that needs tending is their very own.
Whatever the reason, the fact remains that the nation has a bigger task facing it than retraining people who've lost jobs in dying industries. It also has to train people who never had any training in the first place, who never had a job to lose and who don't have the hope of one. But mostly, it needs to cease making arbitrary distinctions between the New and the Old Poor. Either way, they're people. And either way, they're poor.