Poverty and its pathologies have not had a prominent place on the American political agenda for nearly 40 years. During that time - which coincides with the ascendancy of conservative Republi-canism - poverty has come to be seen more as a product of personal inadequacy than of social injustice.
Since the loss of the Johnson-era vision of a Great Society, national initiatives focused on low-income Americans have generally come in the form of cutbacks rather than efforts to raise living standards. "Welfare reform," for example, has been the signal poverty-related achievement of the past decade.
Poor people have also grown more invisible, despite a steady increase in their numbers. Some 36 million Americans - 12.5 percent of the population and 2 million more than at the start of the latest Bush presidency - now live below a federally defined line that is said to divide the poor from the non-poor. But policy analysts such as Vermont's Doug Hoffer challenge that standard as unrealistic and misleading. They point out that an individual earning $9400 a year does not officially qualify as "poor."
By any measurement, poverty is likely to increase further in the United States in the coming years, warns Vermont Congressman Bernie Sanders. The ongoing loss of manufacturing jobs and their replacement by service-sector positions virtually guarantees that the working class will be squeezed and the middle class will shrink, Sanders predicted at a recent "poverty summit" held in Middlebury. In 1980, he noted, General Motors was the single largest employer in the United States; today, Wal-Mart ranks No. 1.
"Thirty or 40 years ago, a Vermonter working 40 hours a week in a manufacturing job could probably pay the bills for a family," Sanders said. "But today, how many families in the middle class have one person working 40 hours a week? The fact is, more and more Americans are working longer hours for lower wages. And the future of our economy is low-paying, service-industry jobs with few benefits."
With public discussion of poverty having all but ceased, comfortable segments of society, as well as by most politicians and policymakers, have generally ignored the life circumstances of impoverished Americans.
That's almost as true for Vermont as it is for the rest of the country. Certainly, poverty is not a hot topic in the media. "The Burlington Free Press last week ran four stories on page one about the UVM basketball team," Sanders observed at the Middlebury forum. "And while we're all pleased that the team is doing well, I don't recall seeing four stories in The Burlington Free Press over the past year about poverty in Vermont."
At the same time, the state's liberalism does make it comparatively generous in the level of assistance it provides to poor people. Fewer than one in 10 Vermonters is federally classified as poor, as compared to one in eight citizens nationwide. Drawing a distinction with the "social Darwinism" he said is practiced by the Bush administration, Sanders observed that Vermonters "don't believe we should leave people on the side of the road in desperation."
The March 4 gathering of about 150 advocates and concerned Addison County residents suggests that poverty might again become a focus of grassroots activism, if not legislative action. The summit, organized by a coalition of Middle-bury-based groups, at least made a start in highlighting the presence of poverty in a largely affluent community lacking an identifiable lower-class neighborhood.
The seeming absence of poor people in the elite college town is "an illusion," according to Donna Bailey, co-director of the Addison County Parent/Child Center. "Affordable housing here is done in good taste."
Poverty may be more readily apparent in rural parts of Addison County and in communities such as Vergennes, Bailey suggested. "I see people throughout the county desperate for housing - much more so now than a few years ago. The homeless shelter is always full," she noted.
Three young mothers who meet the federal standard for impoverishment told their stories to the mainly gray-haired summit audience gathered in Middlebury's American Legion hall on a recent Friday morning. The women gave candid accounts of personal despair and humiliation.
Kari Aube, a single mother of two young children, said her family scrapes by on a $570 monthly welfare check and $329 worth of Food Stamps. "Yeah, I pay my bills, but it means scrounging, feeling hopeless, thinking I'm not going to get anywhere in life, not succeeding the way I thought I would when I was younger," Aube said.
Living in poverty means "not being able to get diapers at the end of the month," added Tiffany Zappulla. "It means having to wash your things in the bathtub and do other stuff that kind of affects your esteem."
Misty Davidson, also the mother of two, said the assistance she receives "isn't enough to take care of my personal needs, to keep myself well-maintained." Asked what she would like to see changed in the local area, Davidson said, "We need people to be more understanding of what young parents are going through. A lot of judgments get made about young parents in this community who are on welfare. It's not fair to us."
Each of the women also described aspirations for a better life for herself and her children.
"I would like to do early childhood education," said Aube. "I'd like to try to make things better for children with disabilities and learning problems. I had those, and the school system was really hard on me. I know it would be a lot of work and that I'd have to go to college and even graduate school, but I'm willing to do it."
Zappulla said she worked as a licensed nurse assistant at Helen Porter Hospital in Middlebury until an on-the-job injury put her on the disability rolls. Even when she was earning $9.25 an hour at the hospital, however, "We were still poor," Zappulla said.
Thousands of "working poor" Vermonters are in similar straits, Hoffer pointed out in a presentation at the poverty summit. A consultant based in Burlington, Hoffer has served as the research engine behind the Vermont drive to establish a "livable wage" that would enable working people to escape poverty. The campaign to make all jobs pay livable wages "has shifted the focus away from charity to a fundamental principle," Hoffer said - "namely, that if you go to work every day and play the game, you ought to be able to support yourself and your family."
The plight of the working poor was further addressed at a weeklong Middlebury College symposium organized in conjunction with the poverty summit. Students heard from one Vermonter who became destitute after being laid off from a job that paid slightly more than the state's $7 an hour minimum wage.
"It really opened students' eyes to learn that even if you work hard, you can still be in poverty," said Sarah Johnson, Middlebury College's Americorps-VISTA representative. "Many were surprised to realize that if you pull yourself up by getting a job, you can lose your [state and federal] benefits and fall back down."
Those left indigent as a result of job loss or other exigency are said to be experiencing "situational poverty." The term is used in contrast to "generational poverty" - a condition that, according to Bailey of the Parent/Child Center, applies to each of the single mothers who spoke at the poverty summit.
"I had a rough childhood," Kari Aube said, recalling that she did not begin seeing the classroom blackboard clearly until her junior year of high school, when she finally got eyeglasses. "Now I'm trying to prevent my own children from having a rough childhood."
But young mothers like those speaking at the Middlebury forum find it hard to break the poverty cycle, given that the men who fathered their children are either absent or uninvolved. Two of the three women said their ex-partners are evading or ignoring orders that they pay child support, while the third has a man at home who is "choosing not to take part" in providing for her children.
Some women in these situations also develop a fatalistic outlook and a habit of dependency that can make them virtually unemployable. One of the mothers at the forum said, for example, that she refuses to work at a gas station convenience store because such a job does not pay enough and would be an affront to her self-image.
The Parent/Child Center strives to make generational poverty less self-perpetuating. A staff of 37 counselors, job trainers, educators, child-care workers, administrators and outreach specialists provide services to hundreds of low-income families in Addison County. The Middlebury center, the oldest of 16 such facilities around the state, has played an important part in reducing the teenage pregnancy rate in the county, according to Bailey.
Vermont has the lowest percentage of teen births of any state, and Addison's rate is the lowest among the state's 14 counties. Nationally, Bailey notes, about 50 percent of teenage parents become teenage parents a second time, while the figure for Addison County is 8 percent.
About 30 families receive intensive assistance at the Parent/Child Center, a light-filled, homey facility tucked discreetly into a suburban-style neighborhood just off Route 7. The mothers - and occasional fathers - who come to the center daily are required to work in the kitchen or assist in other ways as a precondition for receiving in-house services, including their children's participation in play groups.
"The focus here is on respect - respecting yourself and respecting others," Bailey explains. "The staff tries to build a community that everyone can share in equally. It's about creating the kind of life we want people to become accustomed to."
The center is not about infinite tolerance for its clients' behavior. Services are offered only to the first two children in a family, Bailey notes. "We build in a lot of incentives concerning readiness for having a family. We offer gift certificates for vasectomies and tubal ligations, and a lot of time is spent driving back and forth to Planned Parenthood. This is a sort of mini-China," Bailey says, regarding the center's emphasis on limiting family size.
Poverty summit organizers expect the event to result in both concrete benefits and the more nebulous outcome of heightened community awareness. One potentially profound development is Middlebury College's decision to devote more of its resources to local antipoverty projects.
The college's March 7-12 symposium on global, national and state dimensions of poverty was designed to link with the issues and initiatives discussed at the daylong summit, which was co-sponsored by the college's Alliance for Civic Engagement. The school decided to deepen its involvement with local institutions such as the Parent/Child Center before finalizing plans to institute a minor in poverty studies. Absent such a framework, a college with a $700 million-plus endowment might run the risk of self-parody by instructing its students in the problems of the underprivileged. "We wanted to have the event come first," says Johnson, the Americorps-VISTA representative, "because otherwise there might be a sense in the community of, 'Who are we to be studying poverty?'"
Townsfolk had already begun to change their attitudes toward the college, says Tiffany Sargent, director of the student community-service program. "The community looks at the college and sees real wealth, but we have many students who don't fall into that category," she says. "More people in the community have come to understand that, and there's also a greater willingness on both sides to work together."