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Coming up empty

A liberal book shows the need for compassionate conservatism

AN AVOWEDLY LIBERAL BOOK, GROWING UP EMPTY (HarperCollins, 2002), will be on the reading list for a course on poverty-fighting that I start teaching at the University of Texas next week. I'm pairing it with a conservative book, but also noting that its evidence unintentionally points to the real problems.

Author Loretta Schwartz-Nobel admirably tries to awaken affluent readers by describing well the plights of 13 poor women. The first, Ruth, a 38-year-old college graduate dumped by her husband, lives in an expensive home which she couldn't sell because it was in his name. Unable to qualify for food stamps because the house was considered an asset, she eventually received help from a synagogue food pantry.

Subject #2 is a never-married, unmotivated 23-year-old with four children who found that "to get the food stamps is a hassle." Subject #3 was abused by her husband and did not get the help she needed from government; a community volunteer organization became her lifesaver. Subject #4 is an underpaid soldier's wife; the author truthfully notes that "something is very wrong when the men who are willing to fight and die for us on the front lines must wait on long lines for free food."

Subject #5 had three children as a young unmarried woman, then started going to church and met a poor deacon (with two children from a previous marriage) who married her. They tried to get government help but ran into bureaucratic roadblocks, and eventually received flexible help from a faith-based homeless shelter. Subject #6 hated her local social-services bureaucracy and "was too ashamed" to ask her family for help and "too proud to go to food pantries." She was saved by the kindness of "one of the sisters from my church ... this woman saw what was happening to me and opened up her home."

Subject #7's husband abandoned her. Subject #8 stole food because her boss cheated her, but beyond that the author tells us little. Subject #9 was homeless because the International Union of Operating Engineers kept her husband from getting a regular job. Subject #10 wasn't "connecting with my parents so I was looking for love somewhere else." She had a baby in high school and dropped out, and married the father but dropped him after he started "spendin' all his time at the church. Religion had taken over his life."

Subject #11 is a refugee from Cambodia whose husband left her after they had three children. Subject #12 is an immigrant who lives in Florida, receives help from the volunteer organization Caridad, and displays what Marxists call false consciousness: "In Mexico, we have no work, we have no food, we have no soup kitchen, we have no health clinic and we have no Caridad. We are happy to be here. This is enough. This is more than enough. We are blessed beyond words." Subject #13 is an illegal immigrant helped by a food bank who also says, "There is no other country like America."

Let's summarize: The author wants to show the need for more governmental welfare, but her specific detail points in another direction. Faith-based/ community groups preserved most of the subjects; the bureaucratic welfare state was too slow or inflexible. Husbands or lovers abandoned most of the subjects; government cannot restore what lust and lies tear asunder. One woman in this book says she needs government help so her children will regain "the dignity that they lost when their father walked out and we became poor." (How will welfare dependency bring back that dignity?)

Sure, government can help in some ways. It can and should demand that those who break marital contracts pay restitution to harmed partners and provide child support. It can give individuals legal recourse when employers or unions use power wrongly. But when one child mourns "because my dad doesn't love us anymore," we need to ask: How will welfare turn the heart of a father to his children?

Washington Post columnist William Raspberry praised Growing Up Empty because through it "we come to know the victims [of conservative policies] as if they are our sisters and brothers and children." That's exactly how we should approach the poor: not as numbers or as pets, but as fellow members of God's family. Sure, we could follow the author's remedy and toss welfare money at anyone who asks, just as in our sin and hurry we might toss dollars to panhandlers. But even as sinners, do we settle for that with our sisters and brothers and children? If not, why should we give up so easily on the poor generally?