Dignity -- and anguish -- among America's poor

Coming face to face recently with families living in poverty up unpaved roads in the hollers of Appalachia, in isolated rural areas of the Mississippi Delta, and in inner-city apartments and homes in St. Louis, Mo., this writer gained some new insights into what it means to be poor in the United States today. Briefly, these are:

1. There is a deep hunger among the poor today - for work.

2. The poor are not living in very good conditions. Thanks to food stamps, however, most of them are not going hungry.

3. Parents, especially single-parent mothers, struggling to pay fuel and other bills, are trying very hard to bring up their children the best way they can. It is not an easy task under poverty conditions.

Of course there are exceptions to these observations. But I met a cross section of the poor in three states and came away impressed with their determination not only to do the best they could for their families but often to help others.

I came looking for people in poverty; I came away with stories of human dignity.

A blind woman in St. Louis sends in a little money each month to an interdenominational organization which helps the poor and homeless and at one time had helped her. She prays daily and, as this writer was leaving her apartment, she prayed for me. A poor, unemployed former coal miner in Appalachia invited this writer into his ramshackle home for a meal of pinto beans and noodles, popular fare among the poor there. Instead of complaining, he said he was grateful to the Lord for what they had.

Those able to work are anguished by not being able to find a job. At first there is hope of finding the kind of job one is trained for; this gives way to hope of finding any job. Finally, resignation begins to set in.

I spoke with unemployed coal miners who have driven throughout two counties looking for work until they burned up the gas they could afford. A mother on welfare in central Mississippi has placed applications throughout the county, with no response, and says she is eager to work.

The concept that people on welfare like to sit back and wait for the checks to come in I found to be misleading. The checks are eagerly awaited. But they don't do much more than meet fuel and rent bills, leaving little if anything for clothes and extras. It is not an easy life. Food stamps generally meet the basic food needs, however.

Most people on welfare are white. I say this only to help crack a persistent stereotype that seems to associate welfare recipients with blacks. The percentage of blacks on welfare is much higher than the percentage of whites on welfare, though, and this may say a lot about the problem of single-parent families, lingering discrimination, and the enormous challenges of breaking out of a cycle of poverty once that cycle has entwined one or more generations.

I was impressed with a Lexington, Miss., mother who insisted her children complete their homework before going out to play; and with two black families - one in Lexington and one in Durant, Miss. - who have daughters attending college on federal grants. Just finding enough money to buy them college clothes, even a new pair of jeans, is a challenge.

There is a special need to help the homeless. They appear to be a growing underclass - people out on the street, living in abandoned railroad cars, trucks , under bridges, in weedy lots. Missions accept them, but usually only for a limited time. Then where can they go? And without a shave, clean clothes, and an address, applying for jobs or job training is usually out of the question. Some churches have helped by opening their doors to them. For the homeless, there are no food stamps. Often there is hunger.

Some 32 million Americans now live below the poverty line - one out of seven people in the United States, a higher rate than at any time since 1967. An improved economy will provide more jobs and reduce poverty - but only partially. Studies show that even in improving economic times it has been government support programs, not the economy, that has lifted the incomes of many of the poor.

What, then, should government do about the poor? The answers are not easy. But, as various ideas are discussed in and out of government, it is important that they at least be based on an accurate picture of the poor.

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