This is poverty week. The poor are very much on the minds of the rich. By the rich I mean most of us above true struggle level, who enjoy the bounty of American middle-and upper-middle-class living standards, unprecedented and unimaginable in so many other parts of the world. By the poor I mean the poor -- the often hungry, homeless, destitute or just-scrape-by humans we see wandering our streets and the folks who exist just a couple of rungs above them on the social and economic ladder.
The Democrats are arguing about whether their solicitude for the poor cost them the election. The Roman Catholic bishops and a group of distinguished Catholic laymen have both produced missives on the obligations of the individual, the society and the state to the poor. We read about these things in the papers and see them debated on TV. For artwork there are the wire photos of local huddled-up heating- grate dwellers and those haunting Ethiopian babies -- little stick figures with bloated stomachs and huge, empty eyes.
I am like you. I don't know what to do about this and am far from comfortable or satisfied with my own responses. We who are not Mother Teresa, but who are not Marie Antoinette either, walk around temporizing and muttering to ourselves, turning up the music to distract the thought, pledging -- vaguely -- to do something, blaming the "greed" of others, denying that there are as many of "them" as the bleeders say, voting for something or other that someone or other has said will help the poor to help themselves . . . someday.
Those are my responses. From time to time, like you, I am stunned and repelled by the comparison of my own relatively sumptuous and and largely superfluous earthly goods with what I see and know to be in the world around me. It is grotesque that I am worrying about whether the fancy new Italian fabric to cover the wingback chair will go with the Oriental rug when that African infant is staring at me out of the newspaper. I think that we will be judged in the historical hereafter (I will leave the heavenly one to others) very harshly and rightly so for this. I become, temporarily, radical and rash -- I will get rid of this, I will re- duce myself to that -- but it is only a delayed adolescent fantasy. What is the right reaction, then?
Well, here's one thing it isn't: it isn't to sit back in the extravagant new wingback chair, having decided to limit one's own personal action and then expound on the merit of radicalizing everyone else's country and nationalizing everyone else's fortune. For one thing, we have the evidence of our eyes as to how these work in the blighted socialist sister states. We also know the penalties that are paid for mindless, extreme, rote income-redistribution policies -- penalties that exact a price in freedom and spirit, not just in material wealth. The Catholic bishops accept this even though they tend toward very heavy state involvement in the economy. The Catholic laymen make a strong point of it. I believe the premise is right. The capitalist economy, in some guise or other -- more or less directed -- is the instrument by which we can save the poor.
And yet, having said this, and acknowledging the moral earnestness of the bishops and laymen who addressed the problem, I cringe at how the idea is transformed and exploited by the time we hear it played back by government and the pundits and the assorted punishers of the poor. We of means, now characterizing ourselves as the layers of the golden egg, have found a reason for hanging a huge "Do Not Disturb" sign on our wealth. We take it further. Our well-being, not that of the poor, becomes the moral imperative. Since the days when our mothers told us to think of the starving Indians and eat our spinach, through the years of the four-course charity banquet (have a chocolate-covered kiwi for the poor), to this moment of nouveau trickle-down economics, we have been geniuses at using the plight of the poor as an excuse for having something else to eat -- or drink or drive or wear or perhaps invest at 11 3/4 percent.
To the extent that it is used as a cop-out, this appeal to the overall strength of the economy as the ultimate answer to the problems of the poor reminds me of the way liberals used to invoke the elimination of "root causes" as a cure for crime. It held out about as much help to a person being chased down a dark street as the promise of the future benefits from future corporate investments holds out to a guy who needs a sandwich. Still, there are a lot of people who consider that they have fulfilled their Biblical obligations to the poor when they have flung these theories noisily around a drawing room somewhere or in an intellectually heavy-breathing magazine and whose idea of fighting the afflictions of the poor is to denounce other people who are of their own class and circumstance but of a different view, each accusing the other of being stupid about the poor and wrong on the facts. You hear a lot of statistics on these occasions.
I am saying we take refuge in all this. Arguing about the poor with each other takes the place of doing anything about them. (Surely we are still waiting for the findings of some key report?) Not incidentally it also spares us contact with the poor who are always a disappointment to the imagination, being neither uniformly unassuming and grateful like Mrs. Cratchit nor uniformly grasping and ghastly like your classic welfare-cheater queen.
My provisional conclusion is that people like us must give up a few things: the vanity and self-concern that lead us to judge what we have done for the poor by how good it makes us feel; the laziness and indifference that keep us from a sustained and irritating insistence on the pursuit of measures to alleviate the suffering we see around us, and the personal time, money and energy to really mix it up and make a difference with those in need in a community. This last is despised "casework," much derided by some of the big-picture-economic-forces folk who call it "Band-Aids." But I do not see how one can live in our particular world of the vast disparity and the huge unfulfilled promise without doing all of this. The danger is not so much of going mad -- that is melodramatic -- as it is of merely walking self-contentedly past the travail of others, of being, in effect, mad without knowing it.