I've been thinking, lately, in light of the dim economic news, about the way we view the truly poor.
The first person who comes to mind is my grandmother. I can see her at her kitchen sink, re-using the wax paper; running to turn out a light; skinning squirrels, deer and rabbits her husband shot.
Mabel was poor by any means you measure — alcoholic father, fourth-grade education, no job. She owned nothing until her second widowhood, when she got a small house at age 70.
Americans look at the poor — when we look — from atop a mountain of data. The U.S. Census Bureau has the numbers. One in six Americans is being served by at least one program related to poverty. More than 43 million people live in poverty. One in seven receives food stamps.
We claim that we believe in compassionate conservatism, but we are not compassionate about the poor, says Sheldon Danziger, a public policy professor at the University of Michigan. We regard being poor in a singular, American way: failures in the accounting department of personal responsibility. America is a place where people want to believe they rise through their own efforts; an American who loses a job is not a day away from starvation. The truth is, that's because of those government programs. It's a lot better to be laid off in 2011 than in 1939.
But personal responsibility can't cover every moment of chance that besets human life. It can't alone make you rich or save you from a layoff.
My grandmother kept strict accounts, which I have right here, in a red-and-black notebook called, "Cash." Income $225.80 — monthly Social Security — $35 more from the Veterans Administration. She rented out her spare room.
I regret to say that sometimes, my grandmother's old clothes and peasant ways embarrassed me. I'm not alone. We don't want the poor to congregate in our parks or spoil public places — too often, we don't even want to see them. Across the country, laws to criminalize poverty and contain the homeless have risen in dozens of cities.
Perhaps our perceptions will necessarily change. I'm glad my grandmother survived on squirrel — but I don't want anyone else to have to.