Shape up, poor people

JOE QUEENAN writes frequently for Barron's, the New York Times Book Review and the Guardian.

THE OTHER night, while channel surfing, I happened upon the famous final scene from John Ford’s classic film, “The Grapes of Wrath.” Hearing Henry Fonda’s inspirational words about always being present, if only in spirit, whenever injustice was perpetrated on the downtrodden reminded me that, within living memory, poor people served an important function in this society as icons.

Once upon a time, great writers such as John Steinbeck lionized the poor; once upon a time, talented men like James Agee and Walker Evans paid homage to the faceless, indigent but insuperable masses. And though the average moviegoer may not have envied Tom Joad his plight, he definitely evinced a grudging sense of respect, recognizing that even if Joad did not have much in the way of worldly possessions, he at least had his dignity. And this made the typical moviegoer feel better about himself.

The days when dignity counted for anything on this continent are long gone. A society afflicted by an almost pornographic fascination with the foibles of the idle rich has no time to spend thinking about the poor, and, as a result, the lower classes have largely dropped off the radar screen. The agenda-setting tendencies of the media have had much to do with this. A profession once dominated by tough, streetwise refugees from the working class is now dominated by dainty alumni from our finest schools, people to whom poverty is not only unpleasant and unhygienic but totally uncool.

In a world bristling with such sexy topics as the latest exploits of predatory hedge funds and lupine private equity firms, why would anyone want to write about the poor, who never do anything that is even vaguely exotic? In a world filled with flashy megalomaniacs including Paris Hilton, Mark Cuban, Tom Cruise and Madonna, why would anyone want to read about glamourless screw-ups living in public housing at Cabrini-Green?

In a world filled with thuggish investment bankers scheming to get their dimwit toddlers into ultracompetitive private schools; a world filled with super-talented, upper-middle-class girls who are crushed by the hideous pressure of having to excel at everything — not just environmental studies and clarinet but field hockey! — and yes, a world filled with distraught middle-class kids whose iPod batteries won’t charge properly no matter what they do, why would anyone want to write a single paragraph about poor children who never excel at anything? Let’s be honest here. What makes better visuals: poor kids starving or poor polar bears drowning?

Lest I be accused of mawkish condescension, let me make it clear that I am not relieving the poor themselves of responsibility for their disappearance from the nation’s consciousness. Poor people rarely set aside sufficient money for retirement. Poor people are reluctant to send their kids to private schools. Poor people do not network. Worse, many poor people have scary tattoos. This is not the way Tom Joad went about winning the hearts and minds of Americans.

And let’s not forget that many poor people smoke cigarettes — a vile, self-destructive habit that not only makes them persona non grata in some quarters but serves as further proof that, as a class, poor people may simply be incorrigible.

Poor people do not read our finest magazines and thus cannot participate in high-level discussions about collateralized mortgage obligations and the vagaries of cognitive neuroscience and Vermeer. No two ways about it: A lot of poor people have an attitude problem.

For society to function properly, there must be a top, a middle and a bottom. Otherwise, economic mobility ceases, stasis sets in and a society starts to die. The problem in the United States today is that fewer and fewer young people are emotionally equipped to handle the enormous responsibility of being poor, and those who do choose to remain poor are not holding up their end of the bargain by leading desperate lives suffused with quiet dignity, thus serving as shining beacons for the rest of us.

In 2007, the United States finds itself at a moral and demographic crossroads. It cannot expect the upper class to provide strong moral leadership because the upper class is filled with people who work for Halliburton. It cannot expect the middle class to assume that burden because the middle class has always suffered from a certain moral flabbiness as a result of commuting long distances to jobs they hate. Realistically, only the poor are in a position to provide inspiration to the rest of us because they have the most time on their hands.

Still, for the poor to return to those halcyon days when Tom Joad was idolized by millions, the poor are going to need to undergo a classwide makeover. For the underclass to get back to the point at which society actually honors them, appreciates them and seeks out their advice on salt-of-the-earth issues, the poor are going to have to shape up.

They need to take better care of their health. They’re going to have to cut back on the breaking-and-entering mayhem. And they need to express more of an interest in pressing issues of the day, such as raising Third World emissions standards and deciding once and for all whether information found on Wikipedia can be used in term papers.

Most important, they need to stop pouting. Sure, it’s unfair that they were born poor. So, are you going to just sit there and pout about it for the rest of your life?

Look on the bright side: When Tom Joad delivered his thoughts about poverty during the Depression, his words vanished as soon as he said them. Were Joad alive today, he’d be blogging.

If that’s not progress, I don’t know what is.