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Issue No. 116 (March / April 2008) -- Mark Satin, Editor
What the poor need now
Like many idealists of the Sixties Generation (the so-called Love Generation), I’ve always had strong ideas about how to help U.S. poor people:
Now I feel that ALL those approaches make sense . . . as pieces of a whole.
But I also feel that something is missing from them, too -- even when you put them all together.
After all, they’ve all been tried (at least experimentally). And we still have about as many poor people in proportion to the population -- 12% -- as we did when the Sixties got started.
What is missing? Until I moved to Oakland CA two years ago, I hadn’t a clue.
Now that I’m here, though, and living with poor people for the first time in my life -- not as a reporter, but as one of them -- I think I see what’s missing.
Many poor people lack some of the capabilities or basic understandings we take for granted. And you can’t “give” people capabilities in the same way you can give them guns or butter.
You have to do it through intimate, one-on-one engagement with them in all the important areas where their capabilities or basic understandings are lacking. You have to do it through acts of conscious, deliberate love.
Intelligently run welfare bureaucracies can help. But they can’t provide the requisite personal attention and human warmth. For that we’ll need a massive (and affordable) national service program, and I’ll suggest the contours of one toward the end of this article.
My $150,000-a-year liberal law professors at NYU became livid whenever anyone suggested that poor people were at all different from other Americans. Basic social-psychological sameness was beyond argument with them -- it was their mantra, it was the linchpin of their worldview.
At the other end of the metapolitical spectrum, social scientist Charles Murray has suggested that poor people’s IQs typically fall in the bottom 40% of the entire U.S. IQ distribution range (that would be below 90 IQ).
My perception is that many poor people do lack certain capabilities or basic understandings . . . but that none of those capabilities or understandings depends crucially on having an average IQ.
Enough of theory! Let me tell you some of what I’ve seen and experienced of poor people over the last two years -- then you can judge for yourself.
I. AMONG THE POOR
As regular readers of this newsletter will know, I moved to Oakland CA from Washington DC at the beginning of 2006 to be near my now very elderly father.
And I'm glad I went . . . more than glad. But, one problem: Since the Bay Area is expensive, and since I’m living on a tiny “voluntary simplicity” type salary (that 193 loyal newsletter supporters provide me), I ended up living in poor people’s housing near downtown Oakland.
In Washington DC I’d managed to obtain an apartment in a building on tony Connecticut Avenue near National Zoo for about half the going rate. (It was over the boiler room, but I enjoyed the sometimes toasty wall-to-wall carpeting, I really did!)
My Oakland apartment building is utterly different. It is mammoth (112 units), it’s 90 years old, and it’s seen better days, to put it mildly. And it sits alongside two other large and equally sorry-looking housing structures (one is exclusively “SRO” -- single room occupancy). Across the street are parking lots.
You may have heard on the national news that an Oakland Post reporter was shot dead on the street last year. That was three blocks away. More recently someone was shot dead two blocks away, from a passing car -- apparently a “joy killing.” The summer before I moved here, someone was killed in my building.
Although you can see many beggars and conspicuously mentally ill people in my neighborhood, none live in my building. That’s because virtually all the apartments here enjoy rent subsidies from HUD, and you can’t qualify to live in one unless you make over about $10,000 a year (or under about $20,000).
So the people I’ve been living with are not
suffering from debilitating problems. They are what you might call the ordinary
urban poor. Their issues are tractable, if we have the insight to properly
identify them and the will to properly address them.
The vast majority of the apartments here are studios (aka efficiencies). My living room / kitchen / bedroom / study measures 10’ x 12’; there is also a bathroom and small vestibule. Few studios here are significantly larger, even though some house two people and some -- unofficially -- house more.
To my fellow tenants, I am not the author of five published books or a (non-practicing) licensed attorney. I am just another sixtysomething poor person, and not always the most accommodating guy in the world.
I did change everyone’s names below. But everything else is exactly as I saw it.
I am writing with the window open, and hear a radio blaring outside. After a while I realize it’s not from a car in the parking lot, but from one of our tenants’ windows. I walk up and down the halls till I find the source of the noise, and knock on the door.
Sherri answers -- a gaunt woman in her late 20s. Her room is virtually empty except for a bed, some chairs, and a table near the window, with a radio on it.
I ask her to please turn the sound down, remind her that over 40 people have windows looking onto the parking lot and are having to hear her radio.
How could it be too loud? she wants to know. It is such a small radio.
Stop hitting my mother!
I am getting ready to go to bed when I hear what could conceivably be screams. I tell myself I’m imagining things, begin to brush my teeth.
Suddenly the screams are outside my door. Through the peephole I see a man beating a woman, and a teenage girl clinging to him and shrieking, Stop hitting my mother!
I wish I were anything like his size. I do the next best thing, call 911. The police arrive within a minute -- many tenants had already called 911.
They knock the guy to the ground, put restraints on his hands and feet. Our resident manager -- a tiny woman who’s seen it all -- stands over him shouting, You’re out of here!
The girl and her mother are in their room, wailing. A couple of tenants and I observe the aftermath of the struggle in the hallway. There is blood on the walls. Around the corner there’s a dent in the wall, and a pool of blood.
You’ll bring dirt
In my first weeks here I was rambunctious. I imagined the roof would be a wonderful place with a great view of the downtown Oakland skyline.
I tried to sneak up there, but one of the maintenance men caught me. You’ll bring dirt up there, he said. I was indignant. We had words.
Later that day I did sneak onto the roof. In one corner -- the best corner -- was an accumulation of old beer and wine bottles, cigarette butts, miscellaneous filth.
I never went back.
At this moment
At this moment -- 10:35 at night -- someone is pounding on a door near mine. He’s been pounding off and on for 20 minutes. Sometimes he pounds so hard that my walls shake.
I am afraid to open my door and investigate. But I decide not to call the police unless I hear the door actually breaking. If we call the police too many times (our resident manager told me), then they might not come when we really need them.
After another 15 minutes, the pounding stops.
Elizabeth is about 50, and very thin, with graying hair and large eyes. She always wears blue jeans. You can sometimes see her sitting in our oversized World War One-era lobby looking wistful or impatient.
The first time we’re in the elevator alone together, she rubs up against me. I can smell cigarette breath and alcohol. I become hard, which embarrasses me.
She wants to know if I’m married. ‘Cause if I’m not, she says, she has plans for me.
One morning I see they’ve put a big potted plant -- a ficus tree -- in my hallway near the elevator. One of my hall-mates, in his early 20s, stares at it with disgust. I go up to it, confirm that the leaves are fake.
Hey, at least they’re trying, I say.
In the elevator, he turns to me. His eyes are blazing.
I’d like to cut it, he says.
I hear crashing and shouting down the hall. It is only about 11 a.m., so I’m not afraid to go check it out.
Two tall guys are wrestling near the elevator. They appear to be in their late teens, and they’re nearly naked, one in blue-checked baggy boxer shorts and the other in brown-checked baggy boxer shorts.
An old man is waiting for the elevator and is giving them plenty of space.
I cannot tell what mood they’re in. They are oblivious to their surroundings, that’s for sure.
Fire and rain
Soon after moving in here, the ceiling over my bathroom sink “rained.” Maintenance investigated, and told me it was because the couple upstairs had forgotten to turn off the water in their bathroom sink.
Some months later the same thing happened. Over my bathtub.
One day I was sure I smelled smoke. I ran up and down the corridors until I found its source -- in the apartment right above me. The couple had forgotten to turn off the heat under their grease- and food-filled frying pan before going out that day.
It took half an hour and six fire engines to subdue the blaze. The couple was evicted.
My next upstairs neighbor was extremely conscientious. But he had epilepsy that sometimes caused him to pound the floor and shriek, Help! Help!
His name was Wes. He was a 65-year-old who claimed to be a former general and always carried his shoulders ramrod-straight. But he was small and very gentle too.
Usually his epileptic attacks occurred late at night and on weekends. The last time my friend Sandra stayed here overnight, Wes was pounding and shrieking at four in the morning. An ambulance came to take him away.
After he was released, he blamed his attacks on the rotten doctors at the rotten hospital. He said they’d been prescribing incompatible medicines for him.
His children wanted him to stay with them. But he was too proud to live with them because of the epilepsy.
About two months ago, he couldn’t sleep, and when he was walking down the hallway at 1:30 in the morning he had an epileptic attack that caused him to punch the fire alarm.
Dozens of tenants streamed down to the lobby in tattered clothes or bathrobes. Three huge fire engines cast powerful red-green lights through the lobby’s big windows. It felt like Purgatory down there.
Wes sat on a low black table there, being berated by tenants. He seemed even smaller than usual, and he wore a white flannel nightgown like the kind you see in children’s books.
A couple of weeks later, he died at the hospital -- of cancer, they said.
How could we know?
A gaggle of people in their 20s and early 30s lived across the hall from me. On weekends they’d often have parties, and they’d keep their door open. Rap music filled the hall and seeped into everyone’s rooms.
One afternoon they moved new furniture into their apartment. Instead of carting their old furniture away, they deposited it up and down the hall. One ratty couch was partially blocking my door.
When I arrived home that night, they’d been found out, and our resident manager was berating them outside my door. Didn’t they understand that they couldn’t just abandon furniture in the hall?, she said. Didn’t they care about the other tenants?
They just stared at her blankly. We didn’t know the rules, one of them finally said.
The apartment to my right is full of young people who are working and going to high school or community college. At one time there were two bunk beds and a sleeping couch in there, although it is barely larger than my apartment.
For about a year, I complained about the noise from their television and stereo, but now they keep the sound down.
They are my heroes. They have more energy and ambition than anyone I know here.
About a year ago, Willi moved into the apartment to my left. The main room is 10’ by 12’, like mine, but it feels smaller because there is no vestibule.
He introduced himself by asking if he could “borrow” a pan. I gave him one. A couple of minutes later he knocked on my door. He wanted milk so he could make soup in his new pan.
A couple of minutes later he knocked again. He was wondering if he could “borrow” silverware.
I told him that Goodwill was down the street and sold great silverware for 25 cents per utensil. He glared at me, puffed up his chest. I am too busy to go to Goodwill, he said.
I kept running into Willi in the hall. He made his living as a foreign language translator, he told me, but what he really wanted to do was turn his apartment into a haven for the homeless.
Soon he had a couple of thin mattresses on the floor in there, and I could hear a lot of voices through the wall at night, so I knew he was sneaking homeless people into our building.
After a few weeks, cockroaches were coming into my apartment through cracks on his side of the wall. I didn’t report it to management, just bought more roach bait stations. I sort of enjoyed the idea of Willi sneaking homeless people in.
Suddenly Willi was evicted, and I found out why. Management had entered our apartments for some routine reason -- to check on our smoke detectors, I think -- and discovered not just the vermin but the cause of it, mounds of moldering half-eaten sandwiches, filthy sheets, open cans of peanut butter and jelly, unwashed clothes, spilled coffee, all in a spiraling heap.
My pan sat alone and spotless on the stove.
‘Twan moved in after Willi. He was about twice as big as me, and he didn’t like it when I banged on his door and told him to keep his TV down.
He especially didn’t like it when I told him I wouldn’t negotiate noise levels with him. The house rules about noise are clear and that’s that, I said, my knees shaking.
Eventually, we did negotiate, sort of. He sat in my apartment and drank my all natural lots-of-pulp orange juice and looked uncomfortable. He couldn’t believe I lived on a pittance so I could write what I felt was the truth about things.
He told me about his brother who is a member of the Crips gang in Los Angeles. I told him about my sister the accountant. He told me he couldn’t imagine working 9 to 5, and I told him I couldn’t imagine doing so either.
He told me that at the age of 36 he hadn’t found much goodness in the world.
I told him I was writing a memoir, and he went back to his apartment to give me a memoir by the rapper 50 Cent. After he left I saw it had been stolen from the Berkeley Public Library.
One Friday evening his TV was so loud that I pounded on his door, but no one answered. The noise continued for over a week. Finally ‘Twan showed up and apologized. He’d gone off to stay with a girlfriend and had “forgotten” to turn it off, he explained.
A couple of days later I heard women screaming through the air shaft in my bathroom: Get away from me! Get away from me!
I couldn’t tell where the screams were coming from, but when I peered out the window looking onto the parking lot, at least four people pointed up to me. One of them cried, That’s him! That’s when I realized the screams were probably from ‘Twan’s apartment.
Then I heard rumbling outside my door. At least six police people were making a beeline for ‘Twan’s apartment.
They couldn’t find him at first. I passed him on the stairs -- I often run up and down the stairs when I feel anxious about things -- and he looked at me with something like tenderness. I couldn’t think of anything to say.
He was charged with attempting to rape two women, and was sent to jail and was evicted.
You can often smell people’s cooking in the halls here.
When they’re not heating something out of cans, and when they’re not eating MSG-laden takeout from the cheap Chinese restaurants in our neighborhood, many of my fellow tenants use generous amounts of cheap cooking oils.
You can almost taste the greasy foods by breathing the air in the halls here. Sometimes the smells penetrate my apartment, especially late at night when many of us come home hungry and exhausted.
Although the population density in my neighborhood is high, there are no supermarkets here -- an unholy alliance of environmentalists and small grocers sees to that.
If you want food variety (not to mention quality), then you have to take a fairly arduous bus or subway ride. Safeway, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and a marvelous all-purpose food store with separate bakery and butcher shop called Market Hall are all within striking distance.
But the tenants here almost never go to those stores. Often they patronize the small corner groceries at either end of our block.
One does a considerable business in alcohol, the other in selling Lotto tickets (Lotto is the state-government-run lottery scheme).
Neither grocery carries many fresh fruits or vegetables. Low-end brands of canned goods, packaged goods, and candies make up most of the so-called food supply, and those are often priced higher than better brands at the supermarkets.
Campbell’s Soup is extremely popular here. I was dismayed to see that -- after all these years of nutrition awareness -- it still contains considerable amounts of salt, high fructose corn syrup, and MSG.
Chef Boyardee is also popular. It also contains salt, high fructose corn syrup, and MSG.
Frozen juice concentrate is unavailable. However, huge plastic bottles of colored water (of both the carbonated and uncarbonated variety) are extremely popular. These generally contain high fructose corn syrup, sucralose (an artificial sugar substitute), sodium benzoate (a preservative), some sort of colored dye (invariably with a number), and “artificial flavor.”
Among packaged goods, Doritos, Fritos, Cheetos, Ruffles, and Lay’s are the hands-down favorites.
I retrieved an empty bag of Doritos Nacho Cheese tortilla chips from the floor of our elevator the other day, and couldn’t help observing that it contained over 40 listed ingredients. Among them: salt, sugar, maltodextrin, MSG, disodium phosphate, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, corn syrup solids, yellow dye #5, yellow dye #6, and red dye #40.
Addiction at an early age
An extremely young-looking mother picks out a bag of Doritos at the corner grocery attached to our building. Meanwhile, her little girl -- about two years old, in a pink dress that barely covers her bottom -- is staring up at a colorful swath of candies and becoming extremely agitated.
She begins to scream, I want! I want! Her mother informs her -- in an accusatory tone of voice -- that she’d just had some candy an hour ago.
The girl’s whole body is shaking. She begins bouncing up and down, up and down. She screams hysterically.
Her mother pays for the Doritos, grabs her wrist, and jerks her out the door without another word.
I am talking with Catherine, a single mother whose 16-year-old son was recently arrested for possession of stolen property. It wasn’t his first rude encounter with the law.
He was sent to jail for a week and is now under “house arrest” with a bracelet around his ankle. I saw it -- it’s a gray, ugly thing. If he strays beyond home, the bracelet will inform the police and that will be it for the kid.
Catherine is extremely upset -- at The System.
It was just an iPod, she says. And the car it was in wasn’t even locked. And other boys were involved -- surely her boy wasn’t the main culprit. And the charge wasn’t even theft, it was possession.
I figure it is best to listen to her and help her cope with her pain. But inwardly I am thinking, She doesn’t get it. Civilizations are held together by clear, hopefully democratically ratified rules. When the rules are violated, the rule breakers have to be seriously punished. Otherwise the rules are not true rules, and the clever and the powerful will carry the day.
If young men aren’t taught this -- not just the reality of it, but the wisdom and justice of it -- then none of our noble hopes and dreams will ever see the light of day.
The mood in our lobby is constantly changing, especially at night.
At some moments the night lobby is full of raucous young people getting ready to party. At other moments, old people are sitting alone on the couches and chairs, dreaming old people’s dreams. When Sandra dropped me off this evening, the lobby was empty except for one burly young man sprawled out on a couch reading a book.
Our elevator takes some getting used to.
Its floor sometimes serves as a welcome mat for candy wrappers, semi-empty coke cans, wads of bubble gum, failed Lotto tickets, and dribbles from Chinese takeout. Sometimes the droppings are worse.
The ledge above the elevator does double duty as a receptacle for wine and beer bottles. And, of course, the elevator walls are occasionally the site of some (mostly confusing) graffiti.
The hallways in our building are often just as sad. The filth is just less concentrated.
The garbage chutes are open to the hallways, and sometimes people don’t even bother to put their old pizza boxes or soft drink cups or grease-caked toasters or broken-down toys in bags (less alone toss them down the chute), but just leave them on the floor in front of the chute.
Maintenance tries to keep the disarray to a minimum, but they’re not perfect. For three days last year I observed snot near the elevator buttons on my floor. Finally I brought cleanser and a damp cloth from my room and wiped it off myself.
At first the disarray struck my once street-radical mind as a hopeful sign -- a sign that many of my fellow tenants were nursing pre-political grievances against Those Who Are Holding Them Back.
After living here for more than two years, though, it no longer feels like anything of the sort. It mostly feels like a lack of awareness of (or even a fundamental unconcern for) other people’s needs and rights. The Old Testament calls it sloth.
That doesn’t mean my fellow tenants are “bad.” It means that in our astonishingly diverse and individualistic nation, civility cannot be assumed. It has to be taught.
Because of our building’s minimum-income requirement, nearly everyone here works, at least part-time.
Some representative occupations are: security guard, store clerk, truck driver, receptionist, maintenance worker, beautician.
Some of my fellow tenants are well suited to their jobs. Others are not, though, and some of them do not know where to turn.
Some are passively resigned to their not-so-great fates, others ache to move on. But how?
When I first moved in here, I expected many of my male fellow-tenants to come across as menacing or physically threatening.
There is some of that. But mostly what you notice among the men -- especially after you’ve been here a while -- is passivity, a wistfulness, a sort of stunned sweetness.
It’s as if we’re not quite sure what hit us.
Nearly all of us look younger than we are.
II. LOVE IN ACTION
My building-mates need all the things that poverty theorists have been wanting to give them over the last 40 years (and that I enumerated at the beginning of this article).
A sense of empowerment, a livable income, self-esteem, a decent education, suitable jobs, a rational reward structure -- who would begrudge the poor any of that?
The problem, though, is that you can’t just give people those things. They need to have the capabilities necessary to imbibe them or take advantage of them.
And too many poor people lack those capabilities. That is the moral of my two years living as a poor person among the Oakland poor.
That is the truth that’s missing from most welfare experts’ paper-perfect “solutions.”
The missing capabilities
From what I’ve shared with you above, it is obvious that most of the people in my building need help in one or more of the following areas:
To be of genuine help to the poor, then, our first and overwhelmingly most important step must be to figure out how to enhance those capabilities.
Normally those capabilities are nurtured in childhood. But the childhoods of many of the people in my building were mixed blessings at best.
Intelligently-run welfare bureaucracies have their place. But in the trenches, most poor people -- like most of us -- can only be inspired to expand and deepen their capabilities by caring human beings who seek us out and take a personal interest in our progress.
Welfare policy analyst Eugene Bardach knows this. “Clients with lots of unsolved problems are often clients who take up a lot of caseworkers’ time and energy,” he writes (in the Mead anthology below).
Rather than being either lectured to or ignored, many poor people need what Bardach calls “coaching.” Patient, benevolent coaching.
I would describe such behavior as a kind of love: love-in-action.
It is the kind of thing that properly-trained volunteers can provide. “Barefoot healers,” I call them.
Producing barefoot healers
For 20 years now, policy analysts have been proposing national service programs that could build up the capabilities of the poor.
In 1988 a sociologist at Northwestern University, Charles Moskos, proposed that every American who wanted access to federal student aid should have to perform one or two years of national service. Many of the tasks his volunteers would have performed were oriented to enhancing the capabilities of the poor.
In the early 1990s, during his run-up to the Presidency, Bill Clinton began promoting a watered-down version of Moskos’s plan. After Clinton won, Congress butchered the plan into irrelevancy (see the Waldman book below).
As readers of this newsletter know, I support a universal -- no exceptions -- draft of 18-year-olds that would allow draftees to choose among military service, homeland-security service, and community service (see HERE and HERE). Community service could involve work with the poor.
Moskos’s plan -- using access to federal student loans as the carrot -- may be more immediately politically palatable, though. It would be voluntary, and arguably less expensive.
And it would draw on good troops. Many college-bound kids possess many of the capabilities that the poor are deficient in.
Another good (and affordable) source of barefoot healers might be recently retired Americans who’d like to put their shoulders to the wheel.
I envision training pre-college and recently retired volunteers for two months, then having them return to their communities and engage with the poor for 10 months minimum.
That vision is more realizable than one might think.
Under the radar of the national media (mainstream AND “alternative”), interest in national service in exploding.
Voices for National Service -- founded in 2003 -- has grown into a lobbying group representing over 50 local, state and national organizations. Its recent “Memo to Presidential Candidates” outlines an ambitious plan that would allow every American to collect on a National Service Baby Bond after serving for one or two years in a service program.
Last month, Sens. Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Christopher Dodd (D-CT) became chairs of the newly founded Senate National Service Caucus. One of its founding members is Sen. Hillary Clinton.
And although Sen. Clinton’s and Sen. John McCain’s campaign Web sites do not raise the issue of national service, Obama’08 describes Barack Obama’s plan for “universal voluntary public service” in some detail -- including health and education components that could be used to enhance the capabilities of the poor.
When I referred to my generation as the “Love Generation” in the first paragraph of this article, I was of course being sardonic. At the moment we appear to be best remembered for our self-love and self-delusion. Our iconic political figures are Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Wouldn’t it be nice if -- before exiting the public arena -- we were able to make it possible for young Americans and retired Americans to wade into poor neighborhoods and be of genuine use to the poor?
Wouldn’t it be nice if we were able to provide one clear, clean, lasting monument to love in action?
For over 20 passionate responses to this article, see HERE.
Four texts deeply influenced the writing of this article and are largely consistent with it:
For an overview of Charles Moskos’s original national service proposal, and the comical and heartbreaking story of its gradual evisceration by politicians, interest groups, policy analysts, and bureaucrats of all political stripes, see Steven Waldman, The Bill (Penguin, rev. 1996).
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