Following is the middle section of R. R. Reno's opening essay in "The Public Square" section of the latest (June/July 2011) issue of First Things. In it, Prof. Reno addresses the question of just who are "the poor" in America, and how is it that they are poor. spt+
Today, there is certainly material want in America. People who have lost their jobs can’t pay rent. Unmarried young women who have courageously refused to abort their children struggle to make ends meet. Illegal immigrants are exploited; the homeless need shelter; the hungry, food.
Some say the best way to meet these needs involves adopting tax policies designed to stimulate economic growth, along with redoubled efforts of private charity. Others emphasize public programs and increased government intervention. It’s an argument worth having, of course, and to a great degree our contemporary political debates turn on these issues. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there is a unifying consensus: The moral character of a nation is measured to a large degree by its concern for the poor.
On this point I agree with many friends on the left who argue that America doesn’t have a proper concern for the poor. Our failure, however, is not merely economic. In fact, it’s not even mostly economic. A visit to the poorest neighborhoods of New York City or the most impoverished towns of rural Iowa immediately reveals poverty more profound and more pervasive than simple material want. Drugs, crime, sexual exploitation, the collapse of marriage—the sheer brutality and ugliness of the lives of many of the poor in America is shocking. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, poverty is not only material; it is also moral, cultural, and religious (CCC 2444), and just these sorts of poverty are painfully evident today. Increasing the minimum wage or the earned-income tax credit won’t help alleviate this impoverishment.
We can’t restore a culture of marriage, for example, by spending more money on it. A recent report on marriage in America from the National Marriage Project under the leadership of W. Bradford Wilcox, When Marriage Disappears: The New Middle America, paints a grim picture. The lower you are on the social scale, the more likely you are to be divorced, to cohabit while unmarried, to have more sexual partners, and to commit adultery. One of the most arresting statistics concerns children born out of wedlock. In the late 2000s, among women fifteen to forty-four years old who have dropped out of high school, more than half of those who give birth do so while unmarried. And this is true not only of those at the bottom. Among high-school graduates and women with technical training—in other words, the struggling middle class—nearly half of the women who give birth are unmarried.
A friend of mine who works as a nurse’s aide recently observed that his coworkers careen from personal crisis to personal crisis. As he told me, “Only yesterday I had to hear the complaints of one woman who was fighting with both her husband and her boyfriend.” It’s this atmosphere of personal disintegration and not the drudgery of the job—which is by no means negligible for a nurse’s aide—that he finds demoralizing.
Teachers can tell similar tales. The wife of another friend told me that her middle-school students in a small town in Iowa were perplexed by Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter: “What’s the big deal about Hester and Reverend Dimmesdale gettin’ it on?” It was a sentiment that she wearily told me was of a piece with the meth labs, malt liquor, teen pregnancies, and a general atmosphere of social collapse.
Preferential option for the poor. A Christian who hopes to follow the teachings of Jesus needs to reckon with a singular fact about American poverty: Its deepest and most debilitating deficits are moral, not financial; the most serious deprivations are cultural, not economic. Many people living at the bottom of American society have cell phones, flat-screen TVs, and some of the other goodies of consumer culture. But their lives are a mess.
And why? It’s a complicated question that I can’t convincingly answer here. But I want to end with a suggestion, if not an argument.
Read it all here (no subscription necessary). This is the first issue of First Things under the editorship of Rusty Reno, a lay theologian at Creighton University and former Episcopalian who was received into the Catholic Church as few years ago. And it's articles and essays like this that made FT a "must read" under founding editor Richard John Neuhaus.