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Notes from the Boonies

By Paul Wisovaty

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I just read something in Newsweek that I found pretty sad. (Not surprising: just sad.) According to the federal government, the "poverty line" in this country is defined as a family of four earning less than $17,463 a year. Since I have minimal math skills, I had to get out my calculator to figure out what that means.

Here's what it means. If Sue and I each had full-time jobs earning $4.20 an hour - about a dollar less than the federal minimum wage - we would still be above the poverty line. I'm not sure what that would mean to us (I guess we could include it in our annual Christmas time form letters to families, if we could afford the stamps), but I know what it means to the federal government. It means that we would officially be part of the 90 percent of Americans who are not poor, and they're damned proud of themselves for that.

For openers, what six-figure custom suit in Washington came up with that $17,463 number? If two full-time working people are making just 82 percent of a minimum wage that Congress hasn't raised since 1996, but still qualify as not poor, isn't something wrong here? Poor people may be poor, but that doesn't necessarily make them stupid.

Lest you think that these are just paper figures which have no practical meaning, think again. To cite one example, the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provides subsidies to substance abuse counseling agencies for services to indigent clients. If the clients aren't considered indigent, there is no subsidy, and the clients have to pay for it themselves. It may not surprise you that HHS establishes qualification for subsidy about as sensitively as it does in drawing the so-called poverty line. If you are a single parent with two children, earning six dollars an hour, you don't qualify for any subsidy. I do not think that last sentence requires any elaboration. Like I said, these are not paper numbers.

I'm not writing this column based upon something I read in an old Berkeley Barb. I've been a probation officer for twenty-three years, my wife has been a public aid caseworker for fourteen years, and before that she worked for eighteen years for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Collectively, we've been working with a lot of these officially not-poor men and women for fifty-five years. Speaking for the six to eight thousand families with whom we've worked during that period of time, that ten-percent figure, designating persons living in poverty, is absurd. I realize that neither of us has what could be called a representative American caseload. But we've worked with several thousand working families over those years whose gross annual incomes beat that $17,463 figure, and they were sure as hell poor.

Number-crunching aside, What does it mean to be poor in 21st Century America? (As King said to Taylor in "Platoon": "You gotta be rich just to ask a question like that.") Assuming that the number of persons living in poverty, in the "greatest nation on Earth," is more like upwards of 15 percent (according to the Economic Policy Institute), I'd suggest that it means a lot more than not having enough left from the weekly paycheck for your next carton of Camels.

I'd suggest that being poor is almost as much a state of mind as it is an economic condition. (You may justifiably return to the "Platoon" quote.) My average probation guy, making eight bucks an hour with two kids, doesn't just know he's waking up every morning hoping to keep his head above water; he knows everybody else knows it too. He knows nobody is going to invite him to be this week's guest at Rotary, and he knows that most of the guys in Rotary couldn't give two shits less if he's hurt by that unspoken exclusion. When he walks into the bank to cash a paycheck, he knows he's going to be asked for two IDs, and a bank officer is probably going to be called in to OK the transaction. When a police officer stops him for a minor traffic violation, he knows the next question is going to be, "May I search your car?" Speaking as someone who has never been asked that question, I have to think that being asked it, absent any clear indication that I might have something in my car I shouldn't have, is more than a little humiliating. What it says is, "You're driving a 1977 Ford Fairlane with bald tires, so you've got to have some dope in there."

Before you ask, no, nobody died and made me chairman of the sociology department at Yale. I'm just kind of shooting from the hip here. But I'd like to leave you with one last thought on the subject, and then you can re-read "Fraggin'," which, besides being a great column, has a lot neater title than "Notes From the Boonies." [There is actually no "Fraggin'" this issue, so why not read Paul's book review instead? -Ed.]

Even though his Douglas County approval ratings are right down there with Osama bin Laden, it was old Ted Kennedy who, about forty years ago, started beating the drums for some sort of universal health care coverage in this country. Even the much-maligned Clintons tried to get something legislated in that direction. They all failed. Way too many of Sue's and my working adult clients have no health care coverage at all. That is unpardonable. This isn't Ethiopia. It's the nation about which Abbie Hoffman once observed, "This country is so fat you can live off what it throws away." Unfortunately, we're throwing away a lot more than half-eaten school lunches at Tuscola Elementary. We seem to be doing a pretty good business in people too.

Sometimes I'm sitting on my front porch, drinking a cold beer and listening to the White Sox lose, and a wave of nostalgia passes over me. I long for the good old days. You remember, the days when being a good Humphrey liberal seemed the apex of political wisdom. The days when we honestly believed that the people who ran this country cared about the people who live in it.


Paul Wisovaty is a member of VVAW. He lives in Tuscola, Illinois, where he works as a probation officer.
He was in Vietnam with the US Army 9th Division in 1968.

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