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Poor could conduct own war on poverty

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Thursday, July 18, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

First, hold onto family and friends.

Second, learn to enjoy a few low-cost recreations.

Third, ignore the hype and make up your own mind what the “American dream” consists of. (Hint: it doesn't have to be owning a house.)

Finally, avoid bad habits that cost you twice.

These conclusions arise from a public television report on the “working poor.”

“Front Line” host Bill Moyers visited two struggling families in Milwaukee. The men had lost well-paid union jobs in a factory shutdown, and your heart went out.

But you also couldn't help wondering.

Might the “victims” have managed their lives better? By building up some savings, for example, during the fat years. The downward path didn't have to go all the way to disaster.

One couple, for example, broke up after 20-odd years of marriage. Now what sense did that make? Two households instead of one wastes thousands of dollars a year. If the thrill is gone, isn't it still possible to live civilly under the same roof? Morality used to demand it; economics ought to at least recommend it.

The same former lovebirds, both now in low-pay jobs, in fact seemed without relationships of any kind. No friends, siblings or cousins. Can it be they're really alone in the world or just not in touch? Yes, a family might be hard to get along with. But it's wrong to deny yourself the “little platoons” that surround us in times of need. An aunt or uncle might hear of a job. Help with baby-sitting. Or just have you over for coffee. Why do without such networking?

The political slant on poverty always focuses on the income side. What should government “do for people?” Raise the minimum wage? Ban the imports that “steal Americans' jobs?”

Rarely is anything said about how the poor too often misuse their money. We don't want to “blame the victim.”

And true, it's not all their fault. The air is filled with temptations to overspend, to let the kids buy absurdly high-priced shoes or blow $100 on a rock concert or a ball game. And yet sports can be watched free — with pals in front of a TV in the living room, drinks and snacks from the fridge and no traffic jams. A buddies' nickel-dime poker game might even assuage the gambling urge (with better table-talk) as well as a trip to a casino or a daily “contribution” to the state lottery.

Temptations take other forms. The homebuilding industry somehow defined home ownership as the “American dream,” a very debatable notion but OK if you can afford it. The truly poor can't, though, while house rentership really is a respectable American dream. It offers freedom and mobility to those who'd move on to where the jobs are.

Some poverty households seem to be without a single book either. Why not? Reading is one of the lowest-cost recreations. The joy of books, not merely the mechanics of reading, ought to be taught in school. Like the wisdom of thrift. And the good manners that help people get and keep jobs. The TV report caught one wife in sin. She was smoking. This is foolishness twice costly. A pack a day now runs $2,000 a year; plus, of course, the long-range price to health.

Unavoidable verdict: The poor could do their own war on poverty. With a little bit more war effort.

Jack Markowitz is a Thursday columnist for Trib Total Media. Email

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