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Vertrees: Poverty can challenge us all

Carrol Vertrees

Carrol Vertrees

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Updated: December 4, 2013 6:20AM



The poor will always be with us — the Bible tells me so. We may be among the poor before our journey is finished. Some of us may be there now.

I remember a kid back home saying that his family “Is as poor as Job’s turkey.” I have found no mention of a turkey in the account of Job’s up-and-down life, but the symbolism is plain. I wonder — if Job had a turkey would he have eaten it when he became poor?

Many of my friends have never heard the turkey expression, so it must be a cultural thing. Where did it begin?

About 30 years ago, when I actually seemed to be working, I wrote about what we called the “New Poor.” Thousands, maybe millions, trying to cope with being poor for the first time.

Across the country they stood “... bewildered, depressed, needy, angry.” They were not victims of indolence or sloth — they were caught in the infection of a sick economy. There is a familiar ring to that, which should make us wonder if these conditions are indigenous in this land of the free.

Back in my rural enclave south of Newberry, many of us knew folks who had to live in the “Poor House,” places run by counties. Social Security and other changes have eliminated most of those havens for the poor and hungry.

But now America is being jolted out of our apathy about the poor — it is someone else, not us. The new poor among us collide with our traditional attitudes about the poor.

It is not that we don’t care, but gee whiz, there is football and other important stuff. And we have just finished another World Serious, as a friend calls it. Big events in our lives.

I don’t know much about food stamps or what they call the Supplemental Nutrition Program, but I read that a 63-year-old woman who will be hurt by cuts in her benefits says that she will have only about 88 cents to spend on a meal.

More than a century ago economist Thorstein Veblen used the term “conspicuous consumption” in writing about people who bought stuff they didn’t need. If he could see us being overfed in restaurants, he might talk about “conspicuous waste.” (waist?)

This is all confusing to me, a farm kid who has never had much, but always enough. I find it hard to understand how poor people feel. It reminds me of the book “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” He was in a cold Russian prison cell and was struck by the casual attitude of prison officials, especially his guard, who was always warm and comfortable.

Finally, he sees the cold truth about his life, perhaps about all of our lives, and he asks: “How can I expect a man who is warm to understand a man who is cold?”

We might ask that question if we are cold and hungry, and if we are comfortable, how we can relate to the needy among us. Do we know how they feel? I reckon that is a challenge.

The challenge includes how to help someone — somebody we know maybe. Surely someone who is cold or hungry. Those people are not statistics. They are real.

This should make us wonder if the next generation will read a headline like the one on my column decades ago:

“Being Poor Has a New Meaning.”

Will it ever end?



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