Shhh, Don't Say 'Poverty'

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

November 22, 2004

Former Senator Phil Gramm, a Republican from Texas who was known for his orneriness, once said, "We're the only nation in the world where all our poor people are fat."

That particular example of compassionate conservatism came to mind as I looked over a report from the Department of Agriculture showing that more than 12 million American families continue to struggle, and not always successfully, to feed themselves.

The 12 million families represent 11.2 percent of all U.S. households. "At some time during the year," the report said, "these households were uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food for all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources."

Of the 12 million families that worried about putting food on the table, 3.9 million had members who actually went hungry at some point last year. "The other two-thirds ... obtained enough food to avoid hunger using a variety of coping strategies," the report said, "such as eating less varied diets, participating in federal food assistance programs, or getting emergency food from community food pantries or emergency kitchens."

These are dismal statistics for a country as well-to-do as the United States. But we don't hear much about them because hunger is associated with poverty, and poverty is not even close to becoming part of our national conversation. Swift boats, yes. Sex scenes on "Monday Night Football," most definitely. The struggle of millions of Americans to feed themselves? Oh no. Let's not go there.

What does that tell you about American values?

We are surrounded by poor and low-income people. (The definitions can be elastic and easily blurred, but essentially we're talking about individuals and families that don't have enough money to cover the essentials - food, shelter, clothing, transportation and so forth.) Many of them are full-time workers, and some have more than one job.

A new study by the Center for an Urban Future, a nonprofit research group, found that more than 550,000 families in New York - a quarter of all working families in the state - had incomes that were too low to cover their basic needs.

We just had a bitterly contested presidential election, but this very serious problem (it's hardly confined to New York) was not a major part of the debate.

According to the study: "Most low-income working families do not conform to the popular stereotype of the working poor as young, single, fast-food workers: 88 percent of low-income working families include a parent between 25 and 54 years old. Married couples head 53 percent of these families nationwide. Important jobs such as health aide, janitor and child care worker pay a poverty wage."

In its introduction, the study says, "The implied bargain America offers its citizens is supposed to be that anyone who works hard and plays by the rules can support his or her family and move onward and upward."

If that was the bargain, we've broken it again and again. Low-income workers have always been targets for exploitation, and that hasn't changed. The Times's Steven Greenhouse had a troubling front-page article in last Friday's paper about workers at restaurants, supermarkets, call centers and other low-paying establishments who are forced to go off the clock and continue working for periods of time without pay.

The federal government has not raised the minimum wage since 1997, and has made it easier for some employers to deny time-and-a-half pay to employees who work overtime.

Franklin Roosevelt, in his second Inaugural Address, told a rain-soaked crowd, "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

I can hear the politicians in today's Washington having a hearty laugh at that sentiment.

There are advocates and even some politicians hard at work addressing the myriad problems faced by beleaguered workers and their families. But they get very little in the way of attention or resources from the most powerful sectors of society. So the health care workers who can't afford health insurance will continue emptying bedpans for a pittance. And the janitors will clean up faithfully after the big shots who ignore them.

These are rough times for the American dream. But times change, and the people who have broken faith with the dream won't be in power forever.