By James Carroll
"At Trade Forum, Clinton
Pleads for the Poor," read a New York Times headline a couple
of days ago. The report from the World Economic Forum in Davos,
Switzerland, described the president's call for "shared prosperity,"
and in an age marked by extremes between haves and have-nots,
Clinton's words could seem prophetic. Yet something in that headline
nagged at me.
"The poor," Jesus is reported in Matthew to have said, "you
will always have with you,"
words often taken as a benediction of the social status quo. The
very phrase "the poor" suggests an ontological permanence
to the structure of class. The question is never whether that
structure can be changed but only what one makes of it.
Three attitudes are common.
The callous rich don't care about "the poor," and if
free-market wage systems or global trade cut them out, too bad.
The socially enlightened rich worry that the "huge gulf between
rich and poor," as President Clinton put it in his State
of the Union Message, will exacerbate social tensions, and they
look for ways "to help" the poor because we all live
in the same world. Altruists, like Mother Teresa of Calcutta or
soon- to-be-canonized Sister Katherine Drexel of Philadelphia,
who used her fortune to serve "poor blacks and American Indians,"
as an Associated Press report put it last week, honor "the
poor" for their inherent dignity as human beings - and they
are honored in turn.
In this season's political
conversation, which finally gets off the ground today in New Hampshire,
"the poor" haven't been a major topic, probably because
they are seen as neither contributors nor voters. The rhetoric
of politics in the United States is entirely defined by concerns
of the so-called middle class, which must serve the purposes of
the moneyed upper class, since they pay for it.
In his State of the Union,
Clinton referred glancingly to those in other nations living "on
the bare edge of survival," but he offered nothing to pull
them back. His reference was a pious nod. The poor we will have
always with us. The trick is to keep them from becoming a source
of unrest that might threaten our comfort, or a source of discomfort
to our consciences, which is where the saints among us come in.
But is there another way to
think of all of this? I read recently, in a book by William Sloane
Coffin, that Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of San Salvador,
refused to use the words "the poor" when speaking of
the destitute among his people. Instead of saying "los pobres,"
he always insisted on the term "los enpobrecidos," which
means "those made poor." This shift to a noun coupled
with a verb affirms that the state of being poor is the result
not of any character flaw or genetic trait or historical legacy
belonging to those who suffer it but is rather tied to the actions
of others, however remote.
If we spoke, as Coffin suggests
we should, of the "impoverished" when thinking of those
with too little food or shelter to survive, or too little learning
or income to thrive, we would immediately be confronted with the
questions, impoverished by whom? By what? Take, for example, the
recent finding of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance
that the number of young adults ages 18 to 24 entering homeless
shelters in the state increased by 89 percent, from 1,278 in 1998
to 2,411 in 1999. This is a clear signal that most of these young
people, the newest of "the poor," have in fact "been
impoverished" by forces beyond their control - failed school
systems, to name only one.
To confront the question of
what causes impoverishment is to face the fact that policy and
market decisions leading to impoverishment can be reversed. In
the present age, there is nothing inevitable about impoverishment,
and a society that knows that will not long be satisfied with
gestures, rhetoric, or the self-sacrifice of saints, which, however
heroic, leaves the status quo in place.
If one of the premises of the
political conversation going forward from New Hampshire were that
the impoverished need not always be with us, then that conversation
would have to change. Homelessness and hunger in a booming America
would not be ignored. Candidates would confront, say, the impoverishing
effects abroad of massive American arms sales to governments that
neither need nor can afford our weapons. In this new conversation,
motivated politicians would shape proposals aimed not at "ending
poverty," which is a utopian wish to undo the work of the
gods, but at "ending impoverishment," of which the politicians
themselves, with their bankrollers, are co-sponsors.
But there is a drawback to
speaking of "los enpobrecidos" instead of "los
pobres," and the fate of Bishop Romero makes it clear. Such
a shift does not serve the purposes of the money elite, which
led in Romero's case directly to his assassination 20 years ago
next month. In the case of American presidential candidates this
month, the shift would lead directly to the loss of the millions
of dollars being "donated" to keep the present system
intact, which means keeping the impoverished in the place reserved
for "the poor." Our candidates - all of them - are being
paid a fortune less for what they say than for words they never
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.