The Boston Globe


Inequality on the Rise; Greed is Good, Too Good to be True

The trick is to keep them from becoming a source of unrest

By James Carroll


"At Trade Forum, Clinton Pleads for the Poor," read a New York Times headline a couple of days ago. The report from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, described the president's call for "shared prosperity," and in an age marked by extremes between haves and have-nots, Clinton's words could seem prophetic. Yet something in that headline nagged at me.

"The poor," Jesus is reported in Matthew to have said, "you

will always have with you," words often taken as a benediction of the social status quo. The very phrase "the poor" suggests an ontological permanence to the structure of class. The question is never whether that structure can be changed but only what one makes of it.

Three attitudes are common. The callous rich don't care about "the poor," and if free-market wage systems or global trade cut them out, too bad. The socially enlightened rich worry that the "huge gulf between rich and poor," as President Clinton put it in his State of the Union Message, will exacerbate social tensions, and they look for ways "to help" the poor because we all live in the same world. Altruists, like Mother Teresa of Calcutta or soon- to-be-canonized Sister Katherine Drexel of Philadelphia, who used her fortune to serve "poor blacks and American Indians," as an Associated Press report put it last week, honor "the poor" for their inherent dignity as human beings - and they are honored in turn.

In this season's political conversation, which finally gets off the ground today in New Hampshire, "the poor" haven't been a major topic, probably because they are seen as neither contributors nor voters. The rhetoric of politics in the United States is entirely defined by concerns of the so-called middle class, which must serve the purposes of the moneyed upper class, since they pay for it.

In his State of the Union, Clinton referred glancingly to those in other nations living "on the bare edge of survival," but he offered nothing to pull them back. His reference was a pious nod. The poor we will have always with us. The trick is to keep them from becoming a source of unrest that might threaten our comfort, or a source of discomfort to our consciences, which is where the saints among us come in.

But is there another way to think of all of this? I read recently, in a book by William Sloane Coffin, that Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of San Salvador, refused to use the words "the poor" when speaking of the destitute among his people. Instead of saying "los pobres," he always insisted on the term "los enpobrecidos," which means "those made poor." This shift to a noun coupled with a verb affirms that the state of being poor is the result not of any character flaw or genetic trait or historical legacy belonging to those who suffer it but is rather tied to the actions of others, however remote.

If we spoke, as Coffin suggests we should, of the "impoverished" when thinking of those with too little food or shelter to survive, or too little learning or income to thrive, we would immediately be confronted with the questions, impoverished by whom? By what? Take, for example, the recent finding of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance that the number of young adults ages 18 to 24 entering homeless shelters in the state increased by 89 percent, from 1,278 in 1998 to 2,411 in 1999. This is a clear signal that most of these young people, the newest of "the poor," have in fact "been impoverished" by forces beyond their control - failed school systems, to name only one.

To confront the question of what causes impoverishment is to face the fact that policy and market decisions leading to impoverishment can be reversed. In the present age, there is nothing inevitable about impoverishment, and a society that knows that will not long be satisfied with gestures, rhetoric, or the self-sacrifice of saints, which, however heroic, leaves the status quo in place.

If one of the premises of the political conversation going forward from New Hampshire were that the impoverished need not always be with us, then that conversation would have to change. Homelessness and hunger in a booming America would not be ignored. Candidates would confront, say, the impoverishing effects abroad of massive American arms sales to governments that neither need nor can afford our weapons. In this new conversation, motivated politicians would shape proposals aimed not at "ending poverty," which is a utopian wish to undo the work of the gods, but at "ending impoverishment," of which the politicians themselves, with their bankrollers, are co-sponsors.

But there is a drawback to speaking of "los enpobrecidos" instead of "los pobres," and the fate of Bishop Romero makes it clear. Such a shift does not serve the purposes of the money elite, which led in Romero's case directly to his assassination 20 years ago next month. In the case of American presidential candidates this month, the shift would lead directly to the loss of the millions of dollars being "donated" to keep the present system intact, which means keeping the impoverished in the place reserved for "the poor." Our candidates - all of them - are being paid a fortune less for what they say than for words they never speak.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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