The Poorest of the Poor

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The Lord has commanded us to assist the poor. This is not an option. How shall we do it?

One of the paradoxical results of obsessive political agitation is that it makes political discussions almost impossible. Imagine someone on a sickbed, afflicted with a disease that makes the lightest touch upon the skin feel like a thorn or a lighted match. The patient cannot rest, yet movement brings no relief. The doctor prescribes a neural block if the pain is localized in a limb, or a general anodyne if not. Such is the state of the politically agitated. Slogans do the work of the anodyne when real thought is a terror. And the neural block? A general agreement that we will not talk about certain things at all.

Yet we must have the discussions. God placed Adam in the garden to be its lord, tilling it and considering how to make it most agreeable and fruitful. Reason is the faculty whereby man shares in the creative and provident wisdom of God. “Reason also is choice,” says God in Paradise Lost, not as willfulness, but rather as singling-out and determining, just as an artist chooses one color rather than another to communicate the beauty he perceives.

If I may press the analogy, politics cannot provide for itself the principles of its action, no more than a theory of agriculture could relieve Adam from the responsibility of creative choice, or a theory of art can determine for the artist what he shall paint and how. Yet the patient, feverish, sweating, and neuralgic, cannot bear the discussion. Certain of his words resemble principles—“equality,” “mercy,” “prosperity”—but he cannot describe their essence, their mutual relations, their proper fields of action, or their applications. They have have been conscripted into slogans. The canny diagnostician can tell as much by the patient’s irritated and irrational reaction as soon as one of them is called up for analysis.

 

In this state of affairs, we might try some gentle treatment, leading the patient by degrees backwards from practical choices toward first principles. Let me take poverty, for example, and let us set aside our current situation, lest the patient cry out and shut down the discussion before it begins.

When my grandfather came to the United States in 1920, he was eighteen years old and he had but a few dollars in his pocket, enough to buy a little food for a couple of days and to get him a train ticket from New York City to the small town in Pennsylvania where he would live the rest of his life. He spoke not a word of English. He had left school at eight years old to work on a road crew in dry and dusty Calabria, a land of prickly pears, lizards, mountains, gorges, fair soil, and little rain.

He was not, however, morally or sociologically poor. He took for granted that his lot in life was to work with his shoulders and his back. In the town where he settled, this meant the coal mines during the workday, and otherwise the small plot of land where he built his house. All the Italians stretched out their pay by growing most of their own fruit and vegetables and keeping chickens. He could never have managed had it not been for my grandmother, who could, like all the women, cook, sew, mend, clean, preserve food, tend the garden, wring a chicken’s neck and pluck it, and do many other things that our patient on the sickbed has forgotten or never known to begin with.

Nor was he really alone when he arrived in Pennsylvania. When the Italians moved to America, they did so as families, neighborhoods, and villages. They had known one another in Italy, and they caught up with one another in America. Most of these families were intact. And they could not have remained so, what with the fearful challenges of a new land, if they had lacked the moral virtues that help establish family life and protect it. They understood that if a boy and a girl conceive a child out of wedlock, they have let their families down, as their families have let the neighborhood and the village down. The sin was not (and is not) merely personal. It is social.

Materially, they were quite poor. They lacked many material things that the poorest among us take for granted—my grandfather never owned a car, and when my parents got married, they did not have a washing machine or a dryer or even a bathtub. But their poverty was only material. They could depend upon their brothers and sisters and neighbors, and those could depend upon them. Children played outdoors all the time, or they worked when they weren’t playing; they were never idle, because there was too much to do.

What did such people need to bring them out of poverty? Not much. They were like young men strong of limb and brain, but weak from inanition. It is easy to bring them to health: you feed them, and nature takes over. They were owed a just wage though they did not get it, but what they did earn was sufficient to keep their children in school for twelve years, making for material success in the next generation. They were owed and they got schools that did the modest work of raising up youngsters who could read and write, who could do practical arithmetic, who knew some history, and who could go on to more sophisticated studies if they chose (most did not). They were owed and they got protection against vices that corrupt the family, and society depends upon strong families. Entertainment was mostly clean, and mind-emptying drugs had not yet become a common recreation.

Their poverty, for the most part, was not our poverty. Our patient is not simply weak from hunger. He is a much harder case, even though he enjoys plenty of material goods that nobody in my grandfather’s time could imagine. When the miners came up to the free air at the end of the day, they were black from head to foot, but they were not squalid. Our patient now does not live a clean life. Not many people do, but when you are poor already you cannot afford the luxury of squalor.

His bones are rickety. Men and women in my grandfather’s time had been instructed in all kinds of practical work that squeezed the juice out of every dime. Our patient now has no such skills. Money trickles through his fingers. In particular, boys once knew that they had to learn to do things that would become their responsibility when they attained the strength of full manhood. But our patient has only a loose connection to his father, and the schools—those little birds fascinated by the cobra of equality—will not move one inch to revive programs that in practice must benefit mostly boys directly and girls only indirectly, because some of the latter will marry those boys and gain the benefit of their reliability and strength.

What to do? Free college for everyone, some say. Yet college is largely a swindle, and I do not think that swindlers mend their ways when you heap them with money. And again, the slogans, the agitation, and the nettle-fire in the brain keep us from saying what should be obvious: higher education is not for everyone. Many people must make a living by their hands, shoulders, backs, and legs. Their work should never be scorned. Our Lord was a construction worker. Saint Paul made tents. Saint Peter hauled nets of fish from the stormy Sea of Galilee.

Can we have the discussion? A great part of the problem of poverty in our time is that millions of boys, many of them fatherless, are not ready at age eighteen either for college or a trade. Yet I suspect that there is ample untapped demand for the tradesman’s labor. Of course, to learn a trade well you need some virtues that we neglect or scorn: submission to a master, diligence, self-denial, the keeping of promises, and patience. You will not learn these virtues in our schools. You will certainly not learn them from mass entertainment or politics.

What about it, fellow Catholics across the political divide? Can we at least begin with practical matters that may clear our heads for the greater moral questions?

Anthony Esolen

By

Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. Dr Esolen has authored several books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008), Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013).

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