Life at the bottom

Posted: Nov 01, 2001 12:00 AM

POVERTY used to mean hunger and inadequate clothing to protect you against the elements, as well as long hours of grinding labor to try to make ends meet. But today most of the people living below the official poverty line not only have enough food, they are actually slightly more likely than others to be overweight. Ordinary clothing is so plentiful that young hoodlums fight over designer clothes or fancy sneakers. As for work, there is less of that in lower income households today than among the affluent.

Most of today's poor have color TVs and microwave ovens. Poverty in the old physical sense is nowhere near as widespread as it once was. Yet life at the bottom is no picnic -- and is too often a nightmare.

A recently published book titled Life at the Bottom" paints a brilliantly insightful, but very painful, picture of the underclass -- its emptiness, agonies, violence and moral squalor. This book is about a British underclass neighborhood where its author, Theodore Dalrymple, works as a doctor. That may in fact make its message easier for many Americans to understand and accept.

Most of the people that Dalrymple writes about are white, so it may be possible at last to take an honest look at the causes and consequences of an underclass lifestyle, without fear of being called "racist." The people who are doing the same socially destructive and self-destructive things that are being done in underclass neighborhoods in the United States cannot claim that it is because their ancestors were enslaved or because they face racial discrimination.

Once those cop-outs are out of the way, maybe we can face reality and even talk sense about how things became such a mess and such a horror. As an emergency room physician, Theodore Dalrymple treats youngsters who have been beaten up so badly that they require medical attention -- because they tried to do well in school. When that happens in American ghettos, the victims have been accused of "acting white" by trying to get an education. On the other side of the Atlantic, both the victims and the hoodlums are white.

The British underclass neighborhood in which Dalrymple works, like its American counterpart, features what he calls "the kind of ferocious young egotist to whom I would give a wide berth in the broadest daylight." He sees also "the destruction of the strong family ties that alone made emergence from poverty possible for large numbers of people."

Dalrymple's own father was born in a slum -- but in a very different social setting from that of today's underclass. For one thing, his father received a real education. The textbooks from which he was taught would be considered too tough in today's era of dumbed-down education.

Dalrymple's father was given the tools to rise out of poverty, while today's underclass is not only denied those tools, but receives excuses for remaining in poverty -- and ideologies blaming their plight on others, whom they are encouraged to envy and resent. The net result is an underclass generation that has trouble spelling simple words or doing elementary arithmetic, and which has no intention of developing job skills.

By having their physical needs taken care of by the welfare state, as if they were livestock, the underclass are left with "a life emptied of meaning," as Dalrymple says, since they cannot even take pride in providing their own food and shelter, as generations before them did. Worse, they are left with no sense of responsibility in a non-judgmental world.

Some educators, intellectuals, and others may imagine that they are being friends of the poor by excusing or "understanding" their self-destructive behavior and encouraging a paranoid view of the larger world around them. But the most important thing anyone can do for the poor is to help them get out of poverty, as Dalrymple's father was helped by those who taught him and held him to standards -- treating him as a responsible human being, not livestock.

No summary can do justice to the vivid examples and penetrating insights in Life at the Bottom." It needs to be read -- with the understanding that its story is also our story.