BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Walking a Mile in the Shoes of the Poor : IF YOU CAME THIS WAY: A Journey Through the Lives of the Underclass <i> by Peter Davis</i> ; Wiley; $22.95, 202 pages
“A new cold war is spreading over the land. . . . The poor have replaced the Communists as our principal enemies.
“The stormy debate over federal versus local administration of poverty funds and programs is almost irrelevant in the absence of commitment.
“Politicians running for office on slogans of ‘We work, why don’t they?’ literally do not know whom or what they are talking about.
“ ‘Ending welfare as we know it’ . . . is the wrong goal and is doomed to fail.”
Journalist Peter Davis (“Where Is Nicaragua?” Touchstone Books, 1988) reaches these conclusions at the end of a trip that began when he was mugged in front of his New York apartment building and wondered “what would have to happen in my own life to bring me to the point” of committing such a crime.
Davis visited South-Central Los Angeles and, disguised as a homeless man, Palisades Park in Santa Monica. He hung out in shelters, soup kitchens, public housing projects and vagrant camps.
He investigated African American poverty in Chicago, Latino poverty in San Antonio, Tex., and white poverty in Bangor, Me. He talked to the experts and gathered statistics.
His findings: At least 12 million Americans are mired in “deep poverty,” and an additional 60 million are “working poor,” frightened by the pull of the abyss just below them. A problem affecting so many, he asserts, has to be considered a national crisis.
Yet “policy gridlock” prevails, Davis says.
Liberals defend Great Society programs that helped some poor people but left the true underclass behind; conservatives talk “more about rejecting the poor than about ending their poverty.”
Davis offers some recommendations--a limited but definite government safety net, especially for children, and an active role for business--but he insists that no policy can work if the middle class refuses to see the poor as human beings.
Much of his “journey” is a personal one, through layers of prejudice that have made him fear, avoid and stigmatize the poor--the same trip George Orwell took in “Down and Out in Paris and London” and James Agee in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”
Davis introduces us to a crack baby shivering at County-USC Medical Center, abused children, aimless teen-agers, struggling parents, adults turned by hopelessness into “human driftwood,” elderly people without a future or a past worth remembering.
Some are “deserving,” some not. They are poor for all the commonly cited reasons. His point is--contrary to American myth--that they have little or no chance of escape.
“For these fellow citizens I’d been with,” Davis says, “learning to read, finding a home, stopping drugs, being accepted into job training can be achievements as significant as that of a paralyzed accident victim who slowly, agonizingly, learns to wiggle a single toe. . . . For many . . . getting onto welfare or even committing a crime--my mugging, for instance--would be a leap upward.”
Davis is telling the truth.
Twenty-five years ago, I made my own, unintentional journey into the underclass. Unemployed, clinically depressed, hobbled by a speech defect, at odds with my family, I spent six months on the streets, in tenements, cheap hotels and Salvation Army missions.
I picked coins out of gutters, mopped floors with a broken arm, wore my shoe soles through.
What I remember most is the fog that hid the future, the pane of dirty glass that seemed to wall me off from the rest of society, the dream-syrup that impeded my every movement, the thousand obstacles that conspired to keep somebody without a car, an address or clean clothes from landing a job.
I had huge advantages: a middle-class upbringing, two college degrees. Yet it was former co-workers’ efforts that finally pulled me out of the trap, not my own.
What if the trap is all you have ever known?