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Varner: New Year is time to think back and analyze, but also to point forward

Varner: New Year is time to think back and analyze, but also to point forward

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The New Year is time to think back and analyze, but also to point forward.

As I write, it is still a few days before Christmas, so let me begin with Christmas 1944. Dad is stationed in the Philippine islands, which are so far away that you are starting to come back around from the other side. He is off-duty on his ship, lying on his bunk, which is located right above a torpedo. Over the PA system comes Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas.” He sobs thinking of his new wife and not-yet-born child. All he can do for comfort, he later says, is to roll over and hug the torpedo.

A little over a year later, he is officer of the bridge as his ship steams under the Golden Gate Bridge. That day, his now-born son (that’s me!) stands up in his crib for the first time. My dad came back, but a whole bunch of others weren’t so lucky.

For our accreditation in the Illinois State University College of Business, we are required to have units on what is called “the social environment.” It’s great if you can develop a marketing or financial plan, but you also need to know what is going on out in the world. With that in mind, back to Mom and Dad: Dad got his last bit of formal education and in an excellent job market, chose the Quaker Oats Co., which became his career. It was a nice complement to our family farm and it was often said that even if times became bad again, people would still be eating.

Then came (I think) the best day of their married life as they got out from under his mother-in-law’s roof. It was public project housing built quickly after the war to help ease the housing shortage. They were barrack-like units right off of Green Bay Road on McCormick Boulevard in Evanston. We had running water with the kitchen sink and bathroom. There was a basic stove for cooking and an ice box, which needed a new block of ice weekly. There was a single fuel oil heater and no air conditioning. The dishwasher was Mom, but we did have a solar dryer, otherwise known as a clothesline. Evening entertainment was a small AM radio. I did not understand why Jack Benny was funny.

For a while we did not have a car and I don’t recall there being a telephone. Dad earned, in inflation-adjusted dollars, $24,000, so as we measure things today, we lived in poverty. But there was never a hint from my parents that they were somehow unfortunate.

There are about 45 million of us living in poverty today. Our Census Bureau is in charge of research and definitions and they say that students don’t count among that number and, for other reasons, the homeless and soldiers living in barracks are also left out. They say a family of four needs $25,000 to be not poor. Interestingly, public assistance — be it food stamps, rent subsidy, child tax credit, or general welfare — also don’t count.  

So who is in this 15% living in poverty? The internet tells me that only 4.3% of married couples are poor. As President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society began, about 15% of kids were born to single mothers and today that number is past 40%. Of households headed by single women, one-third are in poverty.

Poverty is a moving target, so let us take a deeper look. As a child, my wife heard the guns of the Russian front and was driven from her farm in the German East, settling in a small village near Dresden during her formative years. She recalls that the physician had the only car in town. I have visited the village a number of times and have seen the small food store where her war widow mother worked, the building in which they, along with her two older sisters, had two rooms. Then there is the village well where they got their household water one bucket at a time.  

I have also seen the building that housed the two-room schoolhouse used for the first four grades. And on a nearby hill that kids used for winter sledding, there is a fairly large bomb crater. How do you think it got there?

It is not right to describe the conditions of 70 years past with those of today and say no problem. Still, some comparisons might have value for us as we point forward. That two-room four-grade school had no paper budget, so the students scratched on slate tablets. Yet my wife will tell you with considerable pride that she will put the quality of the no-nonsense education she got there up against anything available here today. We are told that all we need to turn failing schools to success is more money. If it were only that simple.

Then just a few days ago, the Wall Street Journal, absolutely gloating, reported that students in New York City public charter schools — almost all of them poor — outscored students from smooth suburban schools on standardized tests. 

There is one more recent statistic I am having a hard time with. It seems that a half-century ago, more than 60% of those in the lowest income brackets were in the labor force, but today it is fewer than 40%. Have we made it too comfortable for some to live on the dole? Or for all of these single parents, is paid work not really possible?

Does everyone have opportunity? If not, what can we do? Every culture from the beginning of time has valued marriage until, it seems, now. Time to reset? My wife grew up in a place where the government said that the people had an incredible number of rights, but that every right was coupled with a responsibility. Responsibility is not a word often heard in our national discussion today.

Carson Varner is a professor of finance, insurance and law at Illinois State University.

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