Ill Fares The Land


Mark Hoobler loaned me (Ben) Tony Judt’s Ill Fares The Land, and I’ve been reading it slowly, in bits and pieces before bed over the past several weeks. Judt, who died last year, makes an eloquent case for social democracy and laments the growing divide between the rich and the poor, not just in America but also Europe. (Judt was born in Britain.) The title of the book is taken from Oliver Goldsmith’s poem, The Deserted Village: “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,/Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.”

One of the thornier verses in the Bible comes when Jesus tells his disciples, as a poor woman pours expensive nard on his feet, “The poor you will always have with you.” This verse has been twisted by some commentators to mean, “The poor are always here and there’s nothing you can do about it.” This is clearly not what Jesus meant. In the context of the passage, Jesus was addressing his closest followers, whom he knew would always have the poor with them. Jesus spent a great deal of his time hanging out with the poorest and sickest people around, and he was making it clear that following him meant knowing these people intimately. Poverty may be a fact of life, but Jesus was not telling his followers to be resigned to it. He was telling them a fact about how they should be ministers.

I am troubled by this because I have to ask myself frequently, Do I always have the poor with me? If Judt is right, then it’s probably true that many of us do not. “For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest,” he writes. “Indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose.”

Harvard professor Michael Sandel recently commented in the New York Times that if he were president,

I would lead a campaign against the skyboxification of American life. Not long ago, the ballpark was a place where C.E.O.’s and mailroom clerks sat side by side, and everyone got wet when it rained. Today, most stadiums have corporate skyboxes, which cosset the privileged in air-conditioned suites, far removed from the crowd below. Something similar has happened throughout our society. The affluent retreat from public schools, the military, and other public institutions, leaving fewer and fewer class-mixing places. Rich and poor increasingly live separate lives.

I grew up comfortably in a mostly rural Pennsylvania town, and I had rich and poor friends alike. I went to public school until college, when my parents were generous enough to allow me my first choice of school. (Kenyon has always been expensive, though not so obscenely expensive as it is today.) I’ve been spared any great financial distress since graduating from college (something I almost certainly wouldn’t be spared had I graduated today), but I’ve also had patches where, employed but uninsured, 30% of my monthly paycheck went toward medicine I could not manage without.

The city I live in today, Cincinnati, is the tenth poorest city in the country. This is according to data from the 2007 Census. The poverty rate here is 23.5% — over 71,000 people, or more than could fit inside Paul Brown Stadium. The poverty line is $22,050 for a family of four. The thought of raising just one child on that income is hard for me to comprehend.

It’s easy for liberals like me to wish for political programs that would radically address issues like poverty. I have been guilty of thinking that if Washington just enacted more of the right policies (right meaning the ones I agree with) then poverty would be less of an issue. Now that I have a son, I have a new vantage point on issues like taxes, education and fiscal solvency. I don’t want him growing up in a world where rich and poor never meet. I worry that our country is losing its middle class, the place where I feel most at home. What exactly am I going to do about it?

So each night I have another ten or fifteen minute conversation with Mr. Judt, and turn these things over in my mind as I lie in bed thinking about what I have and what I don’t have, what I should be content with and what I should be discontented by, what kind of father I am and what I will say to Sam the first time he sees a homeless person and asks why he does not have a bed to sleep in at night. Do I always have the poor with me? I think about the last poor person I talked to — a homeless man, earlier today, selling Streetvibes outside the store where I work. My job requires that I tell him he must go, because it is private property and he cannot solicit here. “You want to buy a paper?” he asks. I feel like I should, but I don’t have money on me. And it may encourage him to come back. He walks away, shoulders permanently slumped, moving on to the next person who will not give him what it is he needs. No transaction has taken place between us.


Some of my favorite commentators, among them James Fallows, Jonathan Chait and David Weigel, have all commented recently on taxes and the poor.

And here’s Jon Stewart’s recent funny-sad bit on “the poors.”

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