Monday, January 7, 2013

The Professional Poor, the Idle Poor and the Poverty Traders

A Boston street scene from the early '80s:

She stood to the left of the entrance for part of the day and to the right for the remainder. You didn't know when she'd shift, but she always seemed to be in your path as you came out of the building. 
Going for some coffee? 
"Spare a quarta?" 
Going to lunch? 
"Spare a quarta?" ...
She got a quarter out of about every fifth person. I once estimated she made about $75 a day, tax free. That worked out to a take homeless of $18,750 a year in 1983. Not bad when you considered that she had zero overhead.
And so operate the Professional Poor, a class of people with whom I have, unfortunately, an intimate familiarity. The Professional Poor are people who make their careers and their incomes out of always being one rent payment away from eviction, one tank of gas away from not being at their dying mother's bedside, one meal away from starvation, one unfilled prescription away from deathly illness. Their vocation is begging. Their client base is anyone who looks likely, but especially pastors, church people and (I don't know how they can tell this, but they can) the guilty-feeling well to do.

The Professional Poor are not lazy. They work hard for their living. The Boston woman was on her feet with almost no break for probably 12 hours per day. I distinguish them from the Idle Poor, who are the welfare class, the people both indigent and indolent, the people being referred to these days are the Entitlement Class. (And I distinguish both from the true Working Poor, of whom I wrote in 2003.)

The Professional Poor plan their days and their calls or sales routes (for they are selling their poverty to you) as carefully as the most successful businessman. They are masters of timing, to wit:

Christmas Eve, 45 minutes before I begin the Christmas Eve service. Through the door by my office walks a haggard-looking woman of indeterminate age (anywhere from 45-75) whom I peg as one of the Professional Poor before she's taken two steps inside the door. They all have a look that gives their game away when you've been dealing with them as long as I have.

I must say that this woman, whose name I purposely don't recall but whom I'll call Clara, had an original beg. She wanted a place to stay with her husband overnight, being too poor to rent a hotel room. She wanted to stay in my home. Or the home of another church member. Or would one of us simply rent her a hotel room? Then they'd continue her journey in the morning. To her sick mother's house. In Wisconsin. (I live in middle Tennessee).

Of course, the Professional Poor can recognize the poor-weary as easily as we can recognize them, so it took her only halfway into her carefully-rehearsed pitch to understand she was dealing with a professional, too. So: time to take it to a higher level - out comes the Ziploc quart-size bag crammed full of prescription bottles and the earnest explanations that her sick husband in the car must have enough rest. And proof that they really are Wisconsin residents: here is my Wisconsin driver's license!

The hopeful light in her eyes dims when she hears my reply: "We do all of our direct charitable assistance through two local agencies. One is twenty-five miles away but the other is not even two miles down the street. However, I have no idea whether they are still open on Christmas Eve at this hour. I will be glad to give you directions."

The last thing the Professional Poor want to do is deal with a charity agency. Agencies  know every scam out there and even know the names of the Professional Poor who do them. Agency workers view the Professional Poor with all the compassion of a Swiss banker. 

Clara knows she's not making the sale. She makes a final, desperate push: "Oh, we don't have enough gas to make it that far." (So you intend to drive to Wisconsin how?)

I say nothing because there is nothing to say. Without a word she suddenly bags her props and walks out the door. Like any astute business woman, she knows when to cut her losses. On to the next client.
I once gave to all who asked. Now I give to none. Once a year I write checks to funds for widows and orphans of police, firemen, and soldiers killed in the line of duty. Beyond that, I find I can no longer spare a quarta. And when I hear, in the back of my mind, the old Depression anthem "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" I find that although I can spare it, I no longer want to give it. 
It has taken decades of ceaseless hectoring but at long last my compassion account in the Bank of Human Kindness is overdrawn. I'm tapped out. I still try to care but I find, if I am honest, I couldn't care less.
I still care for the truly beaten down, but I have no compassion for the Professional Poor. I never give to anyone who comes to my church asking for money; we do assist with utilities or grocery purchases, but never on a cash basis. And by never I mean, "never." (What part of "never" don't you understand?) There are countless businesses I do not patronize, so when the Professional Poor come to sell their edge-of-disaster poverty to me, my wallet stays put.

Not everyone agrees with me on this, including other Christians of devout faith and true compassion. Some have made a compelling case that we should give without inquiry or distrust and let God sort it out in his good time. I understand their point.

I reply with two points of my own. First I relate what happened in the late 1990s one county away. A small church there established a cash fund to give to people in need. There was a limit per recipient, about $40 or so, but whenever someone came by, the pastor (according to news reports) would take $40 from the file cabinet and hand it out.

One day a man came by and asked for money. "I will give you forty dollars," the pastor said. "I'll take it all," said the man, pulling out a gun. He murdered the pastor and took all the money.

So I never give money to beggars. They swap information about who is loose with a sawbuck and where. Actually, they usually sell the information to each other since they see each other as marks just as much as they see you. Any church or business that starts handing out cash or freebies one day will find double or triple the opportunities by the end of the week.

My second point is that if I had unlimited resources, then of course I could give everyone who came by everything they asked for. Heck, if I had unlimited resources, I could give them all a new Mercedes-Benz. But I don't. And every time I give to the Professional Poor, I have less to give to the truly needy. (The "truly needy" is of course a cliche now, but they really do exist and we are obligated to help them.)

At least, though, the Professional Poor are working for a living. I'll credit them that even if their living in the scam, the con, fraud and deceit.

Not so with the Idle Poor, who are described by Peter Cove, who, "a half a century ago ... dropped out of graduate school and enlisted as a foot soldier in America’s War on Poverty." 
Today, I’m still on the front lines, working to move people out of dependency and into employment. But with an important difference: I've become fed up with the useless policies that I once supported, and I’m trying to change the strategy of our bogged-down army. ...
[T]he government’s unprecedented expenditures failed to bring about the decline in poverty that Johnson had promised. Instead, they made things worse. Neither city hall nor I comprehended that the “community action” organizations on which we lavished taxpayer dollars would entrench dependency by urging people to get on the welfare rolls. War on Poverty funds paid for social workers, community activists, and lawyers to organize the poor, but these organizers, far from lifting poor people out of dependency, helped them sign up for more—and more expensive—welfare programs. For instance, the National Welfare Rights Organization urged single black mothers to protest the welfare system’s eligibility restrictions, and the organization’s goal was to flood the system with new clients. 
The activists succeeded beyond their wildest imagination. By the end of the 1960s, during a period of economic prosperity and low unemployment, one out of every seven New Yorkers was on the dole. By 1975, War on Poverty spending (in inflation-adjusted dollars) had tripled, and the percentage of poor families’ income supplied by welfare had risen from 7.5 percent to 14.1 percent. Under the pressure of the advocates, government programs emphasized “welfare rights,” postponed self-sufficiency, supplied unproven and expensive services, and left most welfare clients out of the workforce. That’s perhaps the main reason that, as some pundits quipped, “in the War on Poverty, poverty won.”
The Idle Poor do not work for their largess. In fact, working is counterproductive to them because government dollars stop if they get a job. So their income is free and they act like it.
Welfare recipients took out cash at bars, liquor stores, X-rated video shops, hookah parlors and even strip clubs — where they presumably spent their taxpayer money on lap dances rather than diapers, a Post investigation found. 
A database of 200 million Electronic Benefit Transfer records from January 2011 to July 2012, obtained by The Post through a Freedom of Information request, showed welfare recipients using their EBT cards to make dozens of cash withdrawals at ATMs inside Hank’s Saloon in Brooklyn; the Blue Door Video porn shop in the East Village; The Anchor, a sleek SoHo lounge; the Patriot Saloon in TriBeCa; and Drinks Galore, a liquor distributor in The Bronx.
The Idle Poor are being played, too, and some may even know the scam for which they are the product, for they are being sold no less surely, though less harshly, than those on the block in 1840s Charleston. The Idle Poor are the sales merchandise of the Poverty Traders, the "social workers, community activists, and lawyers to organize the poor."

Poverty, you see, is big business. The federal government paid out almost $440 billion last year alone in welfare payments. Add to that just under $300 billion that Americans gave to charity privately. With that much money available to tap, con artists and scammers are inevitable.

Once we institutionalized poverty, we professionalized it. Creating poor people and keeping them poor is the deliberate policy of the Obama administration. You need consider only the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or "food stamps."
By the end of August 2012 (the most recent data), there were 47.1 million Americans on food stamps, a new all-time record high. ... 
Since Obama took office, the number of Americans enrolled in SNAP has risen by more than 45 percent.
For which this president will infinitely blame George W. Bush. The Poverty Professions are here to stay. Forever. By design.

Update, Jan. 2016: "High-Tech Homeless Man In Detroit Accepts Credit Card Donations On A Cell Phone"