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Can Such Things Be?
August 20, 2012

No Exit Strategy for Those Living in Poverty:
Work Ethic Has been Replaced by Dependence on Government
by David Coker

EVANSVILLE, IN —When I was growing up, at my grandparent's house there was a floor-to-ceiling pantry at the foot of the stairway going up to the attic, just adjacent to a doorway into the kitchen.

For years it was stuffed, chock-a-block with canned goods. They also had two refrigerators totally full of food on any given occasion — beer, soft drinks, orange juice, you name it.

My mother once remarked that it was "Depression Mentality." They never wanted to run out of food, having lived through the depths of the Great Depression.

My grandparents did not fare very well in the 1930s.

As so many millions of other Americans and others around the world whose lives were rocked by the economic catastrophe that occurred after "Black Tuesday," Oct. 29, 1929, they did everything they could to get by.

Seriously constrained by the reduction in industrial production in Evansville, my grandfather, Harry Coker, "rode the extra board" in the Howell Yards of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. Similar to the coal mines and other firms around here, the lack of business meant they only had work for some of their workforce six months out of the year.

When not working for the railroad, he would cut grass, paint houses, clean up trash or do anything he could to earn money.

My grandmother, Fern Coker, made cakes for people and took in laundry. Had it not been for the financial generosity of my great-grandmother Ida Amanda Grossman Coker, working at the Sears & Roebuck store downtown, heaven only knows how they would have survived.

During several years when only partially employed by the railroad, my grandfather also worked on Works Progress Administration projects, building structures at Garvin and Mesker parks.

I heard about this many years later, sadly, I was never able to learn from him personally what specific projects he helped construct.

There were painful stories.

In one instance my grandmother apparently had what was then called a "nervous breakdown" and traveled to West Virginia for a time until my grandfather borrowed a car and went to retrieve her.

Despite these intense privations and the incredible hardship experienced by this family and countless others during the period, what I remember of my grandparents growing up in the late 1950s and 1960s was a couple whose dignity and sense of self-worth remained intact.

They wore their best clothing to attend church on Sunday morning and had many friends who would call upon them on Sunday afternoon. The difficulties of the Depression years were stricken from living memory and a modest railroad retirement earned during and after the war along with Social Security allowed them to live a modest, yet comfortable life in retirement.

Having discussed this topic with several individuals the past couple of weeks, a few suggested that it was their faith in God and loyalty to the church which helped keep the family — indeed the entire community — intact.

Contrast this personal experience with what currently transpires among people living in poverty.

Routinely, people who receive public assistance live in families with only one parent in the home. Rarely do they attend regular church services and the food stamps, housing subsidies, free health care and other gratuities develop a pronounced entitlement mentality.

One does not earn the right to purchase groceries, health care, shelter and other essentials to sustain daily life; the expectation is that these are to be given freely with no work requirement.

Herein lies the greatest fallacy — and the monumental human tragedy — of the historic "War on Poverty" we have been waging for the better part of my life.

After spending literally trillions of dollars on these and other federal anti-poverty programs, we have a sizable portion of this nation's urban population totally dependent upon public assistance.

The work ethic, once the solid backbone of the nation's industrial economy, has been rendered obsolete and unnecessary to those who receive public assistance.

A way of life that once would have been considered shameful has become acceptable with no guilt attached.

Dovetailed with the growth in the urban drug culture, gangs, and street violence, an abiding media complex creates equally dysfunctional millionaire rapper role models out of the urban chaos while many fathers remain behind bars.

Throughout all of their ardent advocacy to "end poverty in America," proponents of this foolishness have never been very concerned with developing an exit strategy for those living in poverty. With many of the low-paying jobs which used to be available being off-shored to foreign countries, the business community has largely washed its hands of any responsibility for providing employment opportunities for the least fortunate among us.

However, the job of reclaiming our cities from the urban plague of poverty today begins with restoring hope and confidence in the children of poverty — a daunting task for outsiders who cannot begin to identify with the social pathologies confronted by these people.

Until they discover dignity, a sense of self-worth and the ability to achieve, we will never solve the serious problem of growing poverty in America.

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© 2012 by David Coker and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

A version of this article appeared in the Evansville Courier & Press.

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© 2012 Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation