The Vision-Impaired Rich
"Where have the poor disappeared to?" the occasional journalist of conscience wonders. Officially, they amount to 13 percent of the population, although -- since this number derives from an almost-forty-year-old definition of poverty (before rents went through the roof) -- it may be a serious undercount. Yet we seldom see the poor in the media -- unless they've managed to commit a particularly flamboyant crime -- or hear them mentioned in the political rhetoric of either party. If any other comparably sized chunk of the population -- college students, for example -- were to vanish from public view, their faces would be appearing on milk cartons.
The disappearance of the poor from the media is easy to explain: The advertisers who support most corporate media outlets are interested only in reaching the affluent, and media decisionmakers oblige them. I learned this several years ago when I attempted to pitch a story on women in poverty to the editor of a glossy national magazine (which, in the interests of my future career, will remain unnamed). We were at lunch, always a high point in the life of an impecunious freelancer, and I made my case through the mesclun with parmesan shavings and polenta-crusted salmon while the editor yawned between bites. Finally, over the espresso and death-by-chocolate dessert, he rolled his eyes and said, "OK, do your thing on poverty. Only make it upscale."
I never could figure out how to do that, but now a cleverer journalist has. The title of James Fallows's article in the March 19 New York Times Magazine is "The Invisible Poor" -- surprising fare, I thought, for a magazine that routinely brings us four-figure fashions and great recipes for artichokes and fennel. But the only humans we meet in this piece are members of the all-too-visible cyber-elite, a set which has little or no acquaintance with those unfortunates for whom, as Fallows puts it, "a million dollars would be a fortune." He finds his interview subjects wrapped snugly in their stock options, incapable of imagining anyone who might pause before breaking a twenty, or even several thousand times that much. Well, actually, he does encounter one representative of the poor -- an elderly office-cleaner in the software firm where Fallows does his interviewing, a woman with broken English and a painful-looking limp. But this solitary representative of the poor discomfits him so much, with her evident suffering, that he takes to leaving the building for the night as soon as he hears her shuffling down the corridor.
Even as I wince for the journalistic profession -- which, in its finer moments, seeks out the poor and is not afraid to approach them -- there's something to be said for Fallows's approach. To a notable extent, the problem isn't the "invisible poor"; it's the vision-impaired rich, including the sizable upper middle class. As many before Fallows have noted, these fortunates inhabit an increasingly insular world of their own, far from the customary venues of the poor or even the working class. They live in fortress-like apartment buildings, gated communities, or inaccessible exurbs. They do not use public transportation and are unlikely to send their children to public schools. And when they are forced to be in the presence of a sub-millionaire -- a haircutter, a driver, or a masseur -- their cell phones keep them safely sheltered from all but the most minimal verbal contact.
I once endured a few minutes of chit-chat with the CEO of a major multinational corporation. Where do I get my ideas? he wanted to know. I muttered something lame about everyday life -- raising kids, paying bills, going to the supermarket. At this last, his eyes lit up. "I've been to a supermarket," he confided, beaming with populist pride.
But enough beating up on the rich! What could be more tedious and predictable than a column in this magazine excoriating the rich for the plight of the poor? Time for a little "victim-blaming" here: If the poor have become invisible, it is, to be perfectly even-handed about this, partly their own damn fault.
Once an obstreperous political force, the poor have been unnaturally silent in recent years, no matter how many insults are visited upon them. Take welfare reform. Yes, I blame Clinton and all the liberals who stuck by him despite it. But where were the welfare recipients themselves? In the sixties, welfare rights activists disrupted the streets to win higher benefits. In the nineties, many welfare recipients sat on their hands while Congress ruled that all benefits would effectively end. The New York Times's Jason DeParle, one of the few mainstream journalists to take a persistent interest in the post-welfare poor, reports a 50 percent increase in hunger among them, but always manages to find at least one former recipient to testify as to the improvement in her self-esteem since she started getting up at four in the morning, dumping her children with some dubious child care provider, and heading off to wrap packages in a warehouse.
Then there's the curious persistence of insultingly low wages despite the tightest labor market in forty years. The New York Times quotes the CEO of H&R Block saying, "We have not been pressured to raise wages because of the labor shortage." Well, why in the name of Marx not? With companies so desperate for employees that they're recruiting retirees, stay-at-home moms, and citizens of countries as far away as Vietnam, there's no excuse for not demanding a living wage for every job. Anyone who accepts $8 or less for an hour of his or her precious time is either a masochist or a Lotto addict.
All right, just to end on the traditional upbeat note, there are still scattered welfare rights groups around, as well as dozens of union organizing drives reaching low wage workers, and I was fortunate enough to witness one edifying exception to the current passivity myself. In the summer of 1998, ACORN organized a demonstration at a fundraising event for Michigan governor and welfare hawk John Engler. It was a glorious moment. As the Republican donors, clad in tuxedos and gowns, arrived in their limos, they encountered a multiracial crowd of 2,000 poor people chanting, "The people united will never be defeated" and similarly inspiring stuff. For once, the poor were not invisible; they were where they should be at all times -- right in the faces of the rich.