Lisa Ronthal


Lisa Ronthal's
Exclusive commentary

The poverty myth:
How the U.S. Census Bureau
is undermining American society

Each year the U.S. Census Bureau issues its annual report on the number of Americans who are "living in poverty." But a closer look at the actual material living standards of persons defined as "poor" by the Census Bureau suggests that these official poverty reports are misleading. Specifically, income has been systematically underreported and living standards grossly misrepresented on a regular basis, ever since the inception of the census rituals in their present form during President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty."

This month, Robert Rector exposes "The Myth of Widespread American Poverty" in his Heritage Foundation piece (http://www.heritage.org/library/backgrounder/bg1221.html).

According to this report, the majority of households classified as "in poverty" today possess amenities such as cars, multiple televisions, VCRs, and microwave ovens -- two thirds even own air conditioners. The typical home owned by the 41% of the "poor" who are homeowners is a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths; it is in good repair, and has a garage or carport and a porch or patio. The very statistics of poverty, even as thus weirdly defined by the Census Bureau, are bogus: the Labor Department reported $1.75 in spending for every $1.00 of income that the Census Bureau claimed the lowest quintile of households possessed in 1995. Real material hardship does occur in America, certainly, but most of the official "poor" would have been judged comfortable or well-off a few generations ago.

Why all this flagrant misrepresentation, anyway? As Rector points out, the implicit message of the Census Bureau's poverty report is that government should throw more and more welfare benefits at the designated poor, thus instituting and perpetuating the notorious welfare culture -- and the bureaucracy that sustains it.

But the damage to American society extends farther than that, and in more insidious ways. Rector suggests that Census Bureau poverty figures "have had a distorting effect on the national dialogue by focusing attention exclusively on income and material living standards while ignoring values and behavior . ... [The report] encourages policymakers to focus on the symptom of income shortage while ignoring behavioral problems, which are the root causes of the lack of income." In other words, not only are the Bureau-defined "poverty levels" of income bogus, they just don't matter as much as they're supposed to: they're an effect of decaying standards, not a cause.

The downgrading of personal behavior in importance in favor of a Census Bureau-fueled obsession with fetishized and spurious income levels has had visible effects on America ever since the War on Poverty began -- effects which have now permeated every stratum of society from Watts to the White House (remember who got elected to the imbecile strains of "It's the economy, stupid", as if your wallet and not the man William J. Clinton were running for election?) I don't think many will have the chutzpah to claim that those effects have been positive.

A different Jewish voice

We American Jews have by and large identified ourselves with the left wing in this century to the degree that many Americans, both Jewish and non-Jewish, seem to hold a conscious or unconscious belief that Judaism and liberalism are two sides of the same coin. Toward Tradition ( http://www.towardtradition.org/) begs to differ with this prevailing viewpoint. A conservative Jewish organization headed by Rabbi Daniel Lapin, who spoke at the 1996 Republican National Convention and is a popular Seattle-based conservative radio talk show host ("Rabbi's Roundtable"), Toward Tradition maintains that Judaism is a fundamentally conservative and traditional religion and that the teachings of the Torah, Talmud, and rabbinic literature are incompatible with the spirit of contemporary liberalism.

I can't personally stomach every single position espoused by the group, but that's not the point: what they are trying to do is to explain and set forth what Jewish law in its strictest interpretation actually says about a given issue, and that is a valuable service. Once you understand it, you can choose as an individual to accept it or to leave it alone, but at least you have some idea what the Torah verdict -- stripped of all the usual politically correct obfuscations -- would be.

The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy finds a home on the Web


You know who they are. They are those who, and I quote, "desire to see the United States enter into an era of Glory where government is restrained, people lead their own lives and are solely responsible for them. Where character counts and morality and ethics form the basis of personal choices. That, and we like to screw with the liberals." Or, to put it another way: "When people moan that they can not get ahead because 'the man is keeping me down'" or they can't succeed because of "the man," they are speaking of us. That's right, gentle reader: We are the Man. WE DA MAN!"

With a strong sense of humor that's coming from a clearheaded, sound- principled, feet-on-the-ground political perspective (no fringe crackpot he -- though such are cordially invited to join the VRWC's Extremist Right-Wing Cabal), Jose Rojas steps into the breach to provide the much-vaunted "vast right-wing conspiracy" with its very own home on the World-Wide Web. Become a card-carrying member today (seriously, an actual VRWC membership card as well as other goodies like conspiracy stationery are in the works) and receive the brand-new official VRWC newsletter, The Gipper, which isn't out yet but which promises to "keep members of the Conspiracy updated on current events and how the Conspiracy is involved and or responsible for them."

Best stripper on the Web: Carol Lay's "Story Minute"

Rich and haunting and moral, Carol Lay's lyrical cartoons outclass your average decent-quality comic strip by several orders of magnitude. They can be very funny, but that's not altogether why you keep reading them. They create in me a simultaneous feeling of recognition on the one hand and anxiety on the other that always makes me want to cut them out and show them to someone.

Two terrific examples of Lay's "Story Minute" strip can be found at http://www.salonmagazine.com/comics/lay/1998/07/21lay.html and http://www.salonmagazine.com/comics/lay/1998/06/23lay.html; Salon runs a new "Story Minute" strip every Tuesday ( http://www.salonmagazine.com/comics/lay/), and there's a good Lay-devoted Web site, approved by the artist, at http://www.waylay.com/.

Staying connected

It's endlessly annoying the way your Internet connection tends to get timed out because of "lack of activity" while you're in the loo or getting a glass of milk or fondling an intern or whatever it is that you're doing when you turn your back on the screen for five minutes. The $10 shareware (i.e., pay for it if you like it) utility Alive and Kicking (http://hotfiles.zdnet.com/cgi- bin/texis/swlib/hotfiles/info.html?fcode=000NVI) becomes activated whenever you hook up to the net. It'll then download a Web page you specify, repeatedly, at a preset interval of your choice, thus keeping your connection alive. Requires Visual Basic 5.0 Runtime.

Webster's Thesaurus for E-Mail

Another decent download. Designed especially for email and chat-room use, but functional even when you're off the 'Net, it's a conveniently arranged 275,000-word thesaurus-at-your-fingertips. You can download only letters A and L for free -- you have to pay $19 to get the whole shebang -- but it's pretty cool software if you tend to use a thesaurus often. Download the demo at http://www6.zdnet.com/cgi-bin/texis/swlib/hotfiles/info.html?fcode=000HHY.

Lisa Ronthal is a New York City writer who lives on the Internet. She can be reached as lronthal@hotmail.com

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1998, Western Journalism Center