MANY of us are old enough to remember when, back in the 1960s, author Michael Harrington introduced the nation to the ``invisible poor.'' After reading his book ``The Other America,'' we realized that poor people were all around us. We just hadn't noticed them. One of the accomplishments of the 1960s war on poverty and the continued growth of government welfare programs is that now we do notice the poor. It's nearly impossible to go through a major city without seeing a person who is or appears to be homeless. While controversy surrounds the actual number, clearly there are more homeless than there used to be. As of 1985, 14 percent of the US population had incomes below the poverty level; the percentage was 12.1 in 1969. Our government funds, it seems, have bought more poverty.
But government programs are only part of the problem. Being homeless and hungry has become something admirable. Each year, as winter approaches, and especially around the holidays, television and newspaper reporters seek out and interview the homeless. Advocates for the homeless such as Mitch Snyder in Washington, D.C., begin campaigns to attract money and shelter.
The abject poor become objects not only of sympathy but even of respect. They are portrayed as having a ``special significance,'' as Peter Marin wrote in Harper's last January. He said that the homeless ``are all we have left to remind us of the narrowness of the received truths we take for granted.'' Some months ago, celebrities and politicians slept overnight on grates in the streets of Washington to publicize the plight of the homeless and win support for a new federal program. In effect, they lauded the homeless as stoic heroes who survive society's neglect night after night.
This adulation is a cruel distortion. While certainly some of the ``grate people'' have overcome tremendous difficulties, by and large they have not overcome! At this point in their lives, they are losers.
Some are former mental patients who may never be self-sufficient. Others are not so different from the rest of us. But they have made serious mistakes that must be corrected if they are ever to lead normal lives. They have left school, run away from home, or quit jobs - and ended up on the streets. They desperately need incentives to rebuild their lives. Unfortunately, we are taking away their incentives.
To let sympathy turn to acceptance of their state puts a stamp of approval on their self-destructive behavior.
There is a better way. Three years ago, I left New York City for a small town in southwestern Montana. Suddenly, I was back in the 1960s with Michael Harrington where the poor are almost invisible.
Montana is a low-income state. Its mining industry is dying; its agriculture is usually marginal; growth industries are almost nonexistent. Attracted by the scenic beauty, people come to Bozeman and then try to figure out how to make a living. Many have a difficult time.
The minimum wage - or less - is often the market wage. Young people with master's degrees in architecture and journalism wait on tables or clean motel rooms. Literally hundreds of people apply for each teaching job.
But poor people are not obvious the way they are in New York and Washington. Just about everyone has some place to live. If it is a trailer, well, many Montanans live in trailers. The same applies to old houses where the plumbing is poor. And when poor people shop at the Salvation Army Thrift Store, they mingle with their more affluent neighbors rummaging for a bargain.
For those who truly need help, we have an abundance of charity, just as big cities do. Churches supply food, a help center provides counseling, and a senior citizens' center serves older people. Big Brothers and Big Sisters help troubled children. We have the Salvation Army.
But there is a difference. Unlike charity in big cities, help is given quietly and anonymously. Those who donate at church and elsewhere don't know who receives their donations.
I contend that all are better off as a result.
Writing in the 19th century after visiting Britain, the great social observer Alexis de Tocqueville became disillusioned with what he called ``public charity'' or welfare. To obtain public charity, people's names were inscribed on the parish welfare rolls. These inscriptions, he said, were ``a notarized manifestation of misery, of weakness, of misconduct.'' The people on the rolls were permanently marked as paupers; their debasement was public, and they lost the will to better their condition.
Instead, he argued, charity should be given ``secretly and temporarily.'' He believed that people who quietly received temporary help would retain an incentive to move into (or back into) the mainstream of society. That, I believe, is what happens in Bozeman.
Michael Harrington, the designers of the English poor laws, and many of us in 20th-century America seem to have forgotten that poverty can be a changing condition. Today's poor need not be poor tomorrow. The tragedy is not so much that the poor exist but that, in our big cities, they come to a halt on the bread line.
Jane S. Shaw, a senior associate of the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Mont., has helped provide free breakfasts and shelter at St. Bartholomew's Church in New York City.