The Hidden Poor

THE very poor in America not only are an underclass. To a shameful extent, they also are an unseen class. In America's inner cities, poverty seems only to be deepening, and its attendant ills - drug addiction, alcoholism, crime - to be growing more dire.

Yet in much of the United States, the non-poor go about their lives almost never encountering poverty first-hand. They reside, work, and shop in their comfortable and increasingly self-contained communities. People who live or work in major cities may have somewhat more contact with the poor, but that contact is usually episodic: the fleeting glimpse of the drug addict slumped in a doorway or the homeless couple encamped beneath an overpass, the unpleasant encounter with a panhandler.

In few parts of America, today, do the affluent and the poor come together in ways that permit the non-poor to develop meaningful understanding of or sympathy for the conditions of poverty. That's by design.

Of course, the upper and middle classes in America have always carved out leafy and secure enclaves, far from the teeming masses. But suburban shopping and entertainment complexes, technology that enables many white-collar professionals to work far from city centers, and community planning that takes advantage of such factors have made it easier than ever for the affluent to secede from the unfortunate.

It's easy for a problem so out of sight to be out of the national mind. This is a tendency America must guard against.

The arguments for doing more as a nation to help the poor are not principally economic, although poverty does drain national resources. Nor is it mainly a question of security: More than 20 years have passed since the poor torched the cities in 1968.

The argument for helping the poor is above all a moral one. It is an affront to the American conscience and to its core idea of equality that desperate, soul-destroying poverty should still exist in such a rich nation.

And the greatest impediment to progress is not financial, even in this day of tight budgets. Not when America can afford the S&L bailout and a Mideast war. The dollars will be found if we can muster the moral imagination to recognize poverty as something other than images on the 10 o'clock news.

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