The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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September 7, 2001 Issue

Chronic poor remain with us

Welfare reform so far has not succeeded in ending poverty in our country

By Fr. Jeremy Tobin, O.Praem.

A Catholic think tank just published a study saying that most of those now off welfare are still mired in abject poverty (National Catholic Reporter 8/10/01).

The first generation of term-limited welfare recipients are leaving the rolls, and quietly falling into a morass of deprivation.

Faith-based think tanks are attempting to track their fate, but there is no major attempt at a serious study as to the success of welfare reform. Dumping cases, cutting the rolls, equals welfare reform, but the chronic poor are still with us.

The media give us infomercials how welfare is being reduced, then we see more infomercials on how to manage our investments, and what a benefit the recent tax rebates were.

The Clarion Ledger (8/17/01) on page one reports that "Mississippi outhouses may become collector items," and says that 5000 homes still have no indoor plumbing, others have no kitchens, and this is 2001! Someone said that in his war-ravaged developing country getting indoor plumbing into all homes "would be difficult, but this is America?"

It is hard for people from developing countries to understand how abject poverty can be side-by-side with prosperity in America. I have grown tired trying to explain it. There is a lot of national denial going on.

The public is easily duped. Those who serve big interests - that includes large chunks of the media - are reaping major benefits.

They have a big interest in keeping people unaware of: 1) the unequal distribution of resources in the country, 2) the numbers and presence of the destitute poor, 3) how the very rich are getting big bucks, and avoiding their just share of support for the common welfare, leaving the brunt of taxes on the struggling middle class and working poor, and playing one against the other.

That is no new insight. Writers have been reporting it well over 20 years. Many dismiss it as a tired old tune. The data keep mounting. Sooner or later, the country must confront its conscience.

As further analyses of the census become public, more data will mount to support this trend. In addition, what is coming clear is population shifts and what effect these will have on providing adequate representation to the nation's most vulnerable.

Responses range from bland indifference to "poverty has no rights. No work, no food." The urge to keep the poor under control, and more ways to incarcerate them, thereby keeping them out of sight continues to grow.

The public is unaware of what an economic boom the chronic poor provide for the well connected. There are what can be called a Poverty Industry: corrections, social services, health care - labor intensive industries whose profits depend on hard work and low wages. They make huge profits on the poor.

Propaganda that keeps the public afraid of the poor, masking as get tough on crime, justifies what is being done to those at the lowest end of society.

The government aids and abets this "poverty industry." Illegal immigrants have few rights and less benefits than American citizens.

The industries that rely on them for profits can pay extremely low wages - some of their plants are merely a new form of sharecropping, which was a 20th century incarnation of slavery.

Recently, Bill Kurtis hosted a TV program about a boatload of illegal Chinese immigrants who struggled to escape oppression at home, then faced oppression in the United States by the policies of the INS.

The Department of Corrections cooperated by incarcerating them as prisoners, though they had committed no crime except fleeing oppression.

Many were locked up with murderers, thieves and rapists. The tone of the program was "How can this be in America, the home of the free?" It did a fine job of debunking the American myth.

The more one catalogues incidents about the poor, the more apparent it is that the various pieces interlock and connect.

The result is to keep the poor and their concerns away from public view. To convince the public that they are safe reassures them and justifies whatever policies are acted upon.

There are gross injustices going on, and all Christians should take notice.

(Fr. Tobin is a member of St. Norbert Abbey, De Pere. He lives at St. Moses the Black Priory in Jackson, Miss., where he is associate pastor of Christ the King and St. Mary parishes.)

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