- The Washington Times - Friday, September 30, 2005

I am delighted to hear people jawboning about poverty again, even if it took a couple of hurricanes to get us to do it. I also wonder how many Americans really know what poverty is. Basically, poverty is a profound lack of money.

Or, as my father used to put it, “po’,” which apparently meant you were too poor to afford the second “O” or the “R”.

“Are we po’?,” I asked the old man.

“Naw,” said the principal breadwinner of our household. “We’re not po’. We’re just broke.” What was the difference?

“Po’ folks don’t know when they’re gonna eat again,” he said. “I have a job. When I get paid, I won’t be broke no mo’.”

For this we were so thankful that, when the Sunday School plate was passed for a “missionary offering,” my parents always reminded me to drop in something “to help the po’.”

I must have been in college before I discovered that, according to sociologists, our family was “the po’.”

And, yet, we were rich in spirit.

I might not have had holes-free socks to wear to school every day, but I went to school so that, as Mom said, “someday you can buy yo’ own socks.”

I had loving, hard-working and dependable parents at home, which meant I was blessed. We had an optimism about our future that kept us from feeling as poor as many of the po’ folks whom I have covered during my decades as a journalist.

Optimism or a lack of it separates the “po’,” the long-term poor, from those who are “just broke.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson declared “unconditional war on poverty in America” in the 1960s. Two decades later, Ronald Reagan ridiculed Johnson’s challenge with, “Poverty won.”

Fortunately, Reagan was wrong. We’ve won many victories, thanks to some antipoverty reforms from both parties, but poverty doesn’t quit.

Poverty declined sharply from 22.4 percent in 1959 to a low of 11.1 percent in 1973, according to the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan. After a few years of minor fluctuations, the poverty rate rose steadily in the 1980s to 15.1 percent in 1993. Poverty then declined to 11.3 percent by 2000. Since then it has risen to 12.7 percent in 2004, the most recent figures available.

Overall, we’ve made a lot of progress against poverty since the 1960s, thanks to a combination of government and private reforms. They include new job and educational opportunities for blacks and other minorities, increased help for the elderly, and the Earned Income Tax Credit, a break supported by the right and the left that effectively raised low-wage incomes.

Yet, after Hurricane Katrina made the usually invisible poor visible in New Orleans, I’ve heard people repeat Reagan’s glib pronouncement, as if those fighting poverty had no victories at all. We need to give ourselves more credit than that.

The poverty challenges we face now are not quite the same as those of the past. What program, public or private, can prevent those who are merely “broke” from sliding into the predicament of long-term “po” folks? How do you cure a loss of hope and a poverty of optimism?

Folks on the left want government to spend more time and money on our urban poor. Folks on the right want the poor to produce fewer out-of-wedlock babies. As National Review editor Rich Lowry has suggested, these need not be opposing values. In a new anti-poverty war, such values could be the makings of a grand left-right coalition of the willing.

We have needs. We need to set realistic goals for further progress in liberating the poor from dependency, and find realistic ways to achieve those goals.

We need to avoid stereotyping all the poor as looters, snipers, drug addicts and out-of-wedlock welfare cheats.

We need to give special attention to sex differences, such as how our young males of all races are failing academically and economically faster than our young females.

We need to encourage teachers, preachers, social workers, neighborhood associations and others who have worked directly and effectively with teen-agers and their families.

We who are successful need to be divinely dissatisfied with tax breaks and other government policies that widen our rich-poor divide to a canyon that resembles a Third World country.

And we African-Americans, I might add, need to transfer some of our alarm about the racial divide, which has narrowed in recent years, over to the class divide that has widened between have’s and have-nots within our own communities.

Then maybe the poor won’t have to be so po’ no mo’.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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