An Apology for Poverty

News item: California’s Right to Rest Act would give homeless people the right to use public space without discrimination. It also describes the right to rest in public, to protect oneself from the elements in public, to eat in public and to occupy a legally parked car.


I first became aware of the complex of societal problem related to poverty when — one winter in downtown Toronto — I was confronted by a homeless man. In fact, I had to step over him; he was rolled up in a sleeping bag over one of those sidewalk grates over the subway, where the warm underground air escapes from the tunnel. Since I was already late for a luncheon meeting at the National Club, I didn’t have time to ponder the problem. But the thought occurred to me: surely in a town as financially au courant as Toronto, there must be a way to recapture some sort of revenue from that neglected heating facility.

That encounter has colored my thinking ever since on the subject of poverty, which currently occupies much of the national dialogue, especially in the liberal media. In fact, that threadbare but honest publication, The Nation, recently had the effrontery to suggest that the Republicans don’t even bother to criticize Obama for the country’s poverty, because “to do so they’d have to acknowledge that it matters.”

What escapes these people-huggers (I thought that term up myself) is that an article, for example, in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, revealing that 1.2 million schoolchildren are now homeless, totally ignores the corollary. Homeless children, according to a recent controlled study by the Koch (Brothers) Foundation — demonstrate 40% more aptitude for learning than a similar cohort of rich kids. A third group — composed of homeless children who were also denied food stamps because of their fraudulent parents who also regularly smoked a roach (and admittedly did inhale) — scored even higher than the more affluent homeless children.

What are we doing in the mollycoddling realm of “entitlements?” The Republican record in this debate is impressive. Richard Nixon was a trail blazer — this also was grudgingly admitted by The Nation not long ago — when he “lambasted welfare for encouraging family breakups and penalizing work.”

Let’s stop right there, and emphasize that Dick Nixon knew whereof he spoke because he came from humble beginnings. And as a consequence, he even modified his total approach by acknowledging and even advocating a minimum wage. His particular vision — that the benefits derived actually implied viewing it as a maximum wage — resonated more effectively in the ideal society Tricky Dick envisaged.

And to what extent Jack Kemp was a self-styled “bleeding-heart Conservative,” eventuated with his failure to win the 1966 vice-presidential race. But the torch was picked up later by George Bush II, when despite all of the above, his “no child left behind” doctrine insured that rich kids could compete with those hustling homeless kids. Especially noteworthy was Dubbleya’s formula for channeling educational funding through religious organizations, which guaranteed that the process would be handled with a certain degree of financial sophistication.

In addition, everybody knows that a nun whacking you on the knuckles is the best pedagogical stimulus for any kid. Look what it did for Lawrence O’Donnell and Chris Matthews, those kingpins of the enlightened broadcast media. And at a more senior inspirational level, who knows more about developing kid-oriented football coaches than hallowed institutions such as Notre Dame, and the more recent spiritual locker-room pedagogues at Penn State?

It’s been proven, in the process of leaving a cohort of deprived kids behind, that free school lunches accomplish little other than leading to obesity and insufficient calories. Most successful men and women were either born with a silver spoon in their mouths or learned a sort of asocial Heimlich Maneuver early, hustling to cough up their own silver spoon.

Bobby Jindal, the square-shooter Governor of Louisiana, was on the right track when he wrote recently that “soon there will be more people riding in the cart than people pulling the cart.” New Orleans, especially since Hurricane Katrina, is a prominent example of overloaded carts.

Fraudulent food stamp users alone total at least 1% of all recipients, coincidentally the same damaging ratio often used to excoriate the rich and responsible. And Wal-Mart, the acknowledged king of the overdog, with five family members so innovative that they occupy the top ten among America’s billionaires, contributed to the correct dialogue recently.

Retail analysts in a recent survey of a thousand or so Wal-Mart Super Stores, determined that there’s a tipping point wage-wise, whereby entry-level Wal-Mart employees are unable to afford Wal-Mart products, even as systemically marked-down as they are. Henry Ford pioneered this phenomenon (referred to by some economists as The Ford Matrix) in the Twenties, in order to minimize wage rates as a coefficient of maximum car sales. More recently, Wal-Mart scholars have isolated the magic formula as the Coefficient of Employee Market Share. (CEMS)

Ideally, in a theoretical model, at this point (CEMS) the graph representing food stamp acquisition intersects the point on the vertical axis where hourly wage rate corresponds with median product price on the horizontal axis. However, with popular right-wing abhorrence of such socialist give-aways, the Company has developed a new humanitarian concept. In-store donation bottles are positioned at every check-out station throughout all of Wal-Mart’s system, whereby the public is urged to contribute to the needy Wal-Mart employees who consistently fail to live within their means. This is a common condition among the lower classes, accustomed to public give-aways. If adopted universally, this corporate breakthrough could completely obviate the necessity of food stamps and other extravagant entitlements.

The donation-bottle innovation (DBI) has been hailed by other retailers, and in fact The Chamber of Commerce has awarded the Wal-Mart organization their Distinguished Service Award for compassionate capitalism.

Not to be outdone in the field of responsible employee benefits, McDonald’s, long a champion of creative charities, noting that in their Ronald McDonald initiative, the flagship of the company’s charitable good works, the preponderance of applicants were McDonald’s employees themselves. This was particularly the case since a volunteer wage roll-back campaign was introduced as a cost-cutting measure. The Company moved quickly with a new compassionate program: for every $1,000 donated by the public to Ronald McDonald in his cute, little clown costume in those little receptacles at the cashier, $100 was paid directly to a needy McDonald’s employee.

We’ve come a long way from the good old Reagan days when the President made only a passing reference to “welfare queens,” because under his supply-side approach and his trickle-down Administration they were such a rarity. In those days, the more innovative poor could always get a job hustling as deposit brokers for a Savings and Loan, which you may remember was Reagan’s tour de force, until so many of the principals went to the slammer. Poor staff work in most cases. The $182 billion it cost the public was minimal, compared with the recent financial bail-out which, as we all remember, was brought on by irresponsible Democratic regulation.

Today, Paul Ryan has it right that the social safety net has become a hammock. I happened to be in a supermarket the other day and I was held up interminably in a line-up behind food stampers who were purchasing sushi, pate de fois gras and New York cuts.

And it suddenly occurred to me that I should send a message to Toronto’s Mayor with my solution to the situation I described at the beginning of this dispatch. Right about now, Rob Ford could use a cause celebre to distract attention away from his personal peccadilloes. And here it is:

Why not have Ontario Hydro install coin boxes at each of those hot-air grates along Yonge Street? That way those loafers would appreciate their homelessness more. Like placing a small surcharge on food stamps, which is the next innovation in forward-looking Florida.

Bill Annett writes four newsletters: The Canadian Shield, American Logo, Beating the Street, and The Oyster World. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Bill.