It is 1964 in the city room of the Detroit Free Press, where the brilliant young editor Derick Daniels has built an editorial staff teeming with talent.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson has just delivered a State of the Union address in which he declared a war on poverty in these United States. His speech resonates particularly in Detroit, a city with one of the highest poverty rates in the country.
A young reporter, the ink barely dry on his Ivy league masters degree in journalism, is in earnest discussion with Neal Shine and the other city desk editors. The young man, the editors decree, will illuminate the poverty story in the most compelling way possible: he will live in subsidized public housing, and survive on the minimum wage plus whatever token public assistance he might qualify for if he were truly destitute. After a month, he will write about his experiences and the people with whom he shared squalor.
On the second night of the venture, the young reporter calls Shine's home in the middle of a cold February night. "Neal," he whines, "can I go home? I'm freezing and some kind of bugs are eating me!"
* * *
At least the young reporter cared. He had suggested the story to his editors. He believed with all his heart that it was wrong for so many people to be destitute in the richest country in the world. But until that cold, hungry night he had no idea of what poverty really was. In less than 48 hours, it had devastated him.
In almost half a century, not much has changed. Too many of us still live in poverty, and too many of those are children. The people who make our laws, sit in judgement of us, and manage our government know less about the reality of poverty than that Ivy league reporter in Detroit. Unlike him, they don't even pretend to care.
Some on the far right are so sadistically hateful of the "other" that they have slashed public assistance in the form of food stamps. Food stamps! How dare those shiftless beggars actually want to eat! This is the Congress you and I elected. This is the President we elected, the Dr. Kidglove who reaches out time and again to "compromise" with those whose only interest is their own political careers and the profitability of the corporations who bought their offices for them. The people be damned.
In the town where I live, the newspaper call-in column for people who utter their inanities from behind the veil of annonymity is filled these days with comments about the poor from those who are still clinging desperately to the last vestiges of the middle class. The tenor of all of them is, "If you can't get by on $5 worth of food a day, get up off your lazy arse and get a job." (Never mind that the number actually was $4.50 and now is below $4.) They echo the falsehoods of their man in Congress, who holds "job fairs" which, he says, are poorly attended because most of the unemployed couldn't pass drug tests. He doesn't mention that virtually all of the jobs at his fairs pay the minimum wage, and that most of the employers limit the hours of those jobs so they don't have to pay benefits like health care.
Back in the day when that Detoit reporter was learning the hard lessons of real poverty, the conservative Barry Goldwater was running for president. The late Bill Mauldin drew a cartoon for the Washington Post that depicted the multimillionaire Goldwater lecturing a tattered pair of poor folk sitting on the curb, faces full of despair.
Goldwater is telling them: "Show some ambition! Go out and inherit a department store."
Plus ça change. . . .