Editorial — Mr. and Mrs. W: The White Poor

Once when I was about eleven, my father drove me out to one of the hollows in the hills south of Johnstown, Pa., where he was to collect insurance from a family he wanted me to meet. The yard of their home up above the road was littered with old rusting automobiles, barrels, and small piles of pipe and warped lumber.

They were a happy couple, with growing sons and a daughter. One thought of them instantly as poor (I did not know at that time that we lived, officially, in “Appalachia”). But one did not—if I may make a crucial distinction—think of them as “living in poverty.” My father explained that Mr. W (I have forgotten the name) thought others were crazy for living in “the city,” submitting themselves to a nine-to-five regimen. That, he thought, was voluntary servitude.

Mr. W preferred the quiet of the woods and hollows. He found odd jobs from time to time for cash. He was his own boss. He worked steadily when he cared to. Meanwhile, the surrounding hills and streams were “his.” He was not often disturbed. His family had what it needed. He seemed to me something like the original American pioneers.

No doubt, in this more enlightened age some forty years later, Mr. W and his family would be officially inscribed among this nation’s poor.

I think often of Mr. W when conversation, as it often does, turns to our “religious obligation to help the poor.” Who are these “poor” we are presumed to be able to help?

There seem to be relatively few studies of white poverty, as compared to black poverty. Yet the Census Bureau reports, e.g., that there are 3.1 million white married-couple families, compared to 533,000 black married-couple families, who live below the poverty line. This is a ratio of nearly 6 to 1.

Married-couple families are not nearly so often poor as single-parent families. Having an intact (married-couple) family is one of the very best ways to escape poverty: 93 percent of white married-couples are not poor, and 85 percent of black married-couples are not poor.

Still, clearly, there are several million poor married-couple families.

Geography plays a part. Like Mr. and Mrs. W, persons living in rural areas (not necessarily on farms) may not participate much in the cash economy. They make part of their living on the land, growing food for themselves, not travelling much, preferring simpler lives. Anyone who wishes to live without frills, in a sound basic way, can live quite comfortably without trying to climb above the poverty line.

The state of Maine, for example, is almost entirely populated by whites. Its per capita income is 47th among the fifty states. Yet one tends to think of the people of Maine with admiration, and in terms of an attractive dignity. It is not easy to feel “sorry” for them. One almost envies them.

They cut firewood to heat their homes, often enough by marvelously efficient wood-burning stoves. They work hard to keep their homes insulated and ship-shape. Many are proud of escaping the “rat race.” Some look at what they see on television with not a little scorn and happy distance.

I note that nearly 20 million American families are “outside metropolitan areas,” and that about 3 million of them are “poor.” I think of some among them I have met over the years: not only in Pennsylvania and in Maine, but in Iowa, Wyoming, Idaho, and elsewhere.

Do we really do justice to the annual “poverty figures” when television stations dispatch their crews to the most photogenic area of urban blight nearest to the studio? When we learn that 35.3 million Americans were officially counted as “poor” in 1983, do we ever stop to subtract from this figure those who choose to live as they live—and who, perhaps, feel sorry for the rest of us?

So many Americans who make our symbols of ourselves, such as filmmakers, intellectuals, and journalists, are driven by ambition, artistic and otherwise. Perhaps we find it hard to believe that people like Mr. and Mrs. W do not think of themselves as poor. And that they pity us.

Suppose we subtracted from the “officially” poor all those who prefer to live as they live. Is there, then, such a thing as voluntary poverty? If so, what are its dimensions?

We know, quite certainly, that there is such a thing as temporary poverty. From 1970 to 1980, this nation welcomed more immigrants than in any other decade of its history (many of them Asians). Upon arrival, the vast majority of such immigrants would be counted as “officially” poor. But did they regard themselves as “poor”? For most, almost certainly, not so.

For one thing, most could compare their present circumstances with what they had just left. More important, they are typically not a now-centered people; they see themselves in the light of what they intend to become as soon as possible. They do not think of themselves as poor, because they don’t intend to remain poor. For millions, America is a land of opportunity—of almost unbelievable opportunity.

Is it not the same with, say, about a million graduate students, who with spouses and children may temporarily account for about four million of the “officially” poor? And what about persons over 65, whose homes are paid for and who, although cash-flow is tight, live simple, comfortable, orderly lives?

Sometime soon it will be necessary for us to see the poor, in all their variety, as they see themselves. This achievement may have the ironic effect of making us more compassionate, not less, by seeing our fellow human beings as they are, in all their variety, free choice, and vast array of differing aspirations.

Michael Novak

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Michael Novak held for many years the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is now a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. He is a philosopher, theologian, and author, as well as the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He has been an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has written over twenty-seven books on the philosophy and theology of culture, especially the essential elements of a free society. He also founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982.

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