“He’s just hard-headed.” That’s what my grandfather used to say about me when I was a boy. For instance, every time we played golf together, he would tell me to slow down my golf swing. I never did. Well, not until about ten years ago. I wish he’d been alive to see it. It produced such miraculous results that I’m now searching my memory for other bits of advice he gave me. Maybe it’s not too late to become frugal and modest too.
My fast golf swing in those days was just one symptom of who I was. Everything I did was too fast. I didn’t need to stop to think. I just acted. If I had a rare moment of reflection, it was to brood about why some cretin was obstructing me.
Eventually I grew out of all that certainty. In a way, I’m sorry I did. I know too much now. I hate realizing that not everyone lives happily ever after. I hate seeing that some problems are as stubborn as I was as a kid.
There was poverty when I was young, but it seemed like the past, not the future. They were the falling-down porches and peeling paint of shacks out in the country, but I didn’t see new blight being created, so I suppose I thought the earth would reclaim those hovels and the future would be as bright and new for everyone as I was sure it would be for me.
Like an overview scene in a movie, my internal camera gradually pulled back from my family and my hometown, and I began to see that those dilapidated rural shacks were the least of the world’s troubles. Even then, the squalid, desperate conditions in Africa and Asia, in so many parts of the world, felt to me as though they existed on some other planet. It was a long time before I realized—no, until I accepted—that those same dehumanizing conditions were commonplace in my beloved America.
I remember when Lyndon Johnson declared his War on Poverty. I thought: Good. At last we’re going to take care of that. Even if we can’t solve problems halfway around the globe, we take care of our own.
But we haven’t, have we? After sputtering along for decades, the poverty rate has climbed steadily in the last ten years. I didn’t feel responsible for the shanties of my youth. I didn’t feel we would allow them to persist. But even as the rich have gotten richer, we have let those shanties fall into greater disrepair and forced more people into them.
Why is that? It can’t be childlike naiveté. In this age of so much information, no sentient adult can possibly be unaware of the facts of poverty in America. No, I fear that those who ignore the suffering of our fellow countrymen are exhibiting that other trait that was so prevalent in me in my childhood: stubbornness.
Poverty so systemic that it is insurmountable by willpower and character alone does not fit the American myth of self-reliance. For some, it is simply easier to look away from the uncomfortable facts. What other than willful self-delusion else could explain wanting to cut programs that help poor kids get enough to eat and a decent education? Programs that help parents find child-care while they work to support their families. Or that create training programs that offer the skills necessary to find a good job in a world where technology and globalization have fundamentally altered the employment landscape.
To those folks living in that state of denial about the dire circumstances afflicting so many of our fellow citizens, I offer this advice: Listen to my grandfather. Don’t be so hard-headed.