JACKI LYDEN, host: 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, reusing 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, 4th 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, over 43 million people live in poverty, and 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, 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 that they rise through their own efforts; an American who loses a job is not a day away from starvation.

The truth is that's partly 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 a 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 VA. She rented out her spare room. My high school English teacher wound up in it. He paid twenty bucks weekly.

I regret to say that sometimes my grandmother's ways embarrass 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 that in effect criminalize poverty by targeting the poor and containing the homeless have risen in dozens of cities. Perhaps our perceptions will necessarily change. I'm proud my grandmother survived on squirrel, but I don't want anyone else to have to.


LYDEN: You're listening to NPR News.

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