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"America Is Becoming More Virtuous"?

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I'm a little slow in responding to David Brooks' New York Times column of August 7 ("The Virtues of Virtue"), because I've been on vacation and trying to free my mind of this sort of thing, but I just can't sit this one out.

"America is becoming more virtuous"? That's a quote -- the question mark is mine. Just for openers, that's a mouthful. I'll put aside the murderous and mendacious re-election war undertaken by President Bush and Karl Rove and the others, the obscene enriching of the already super-rich, and the improvised explosive device detonated so successfully under our government's revenue structure. Those were not the objects of Mr. Brooks' ode to virtue.

He wants to convince us that our poor and downtrodden are quietly undergoing signficant positive life changes, or at least behavioral changes, that are revolutionizing their situation.

I should start by saying that he isn't lying about the underlying facts. There are some good trends, although many of Mr. Brooks' facts end with data as of the year 2000. Even so, there have been some good (if limited) trends in some areas. And I certainly applaud the wonderful work done by women (and men) struggling to get our nation to face up to the facts about domestic violence. But Mr. Brooks wants us to believe that the whole bottle is at least half full and getting fuller. Sad to say, one has to ignore more than a few bushels of facts to believe that.

Start with income. The fact is that the 90s were a good decade for the poor, relatively speaking. There were a lot of jobs available, particularly (mainly, actually) during the second half of the decade. When President Clinton left office there were "only" about 31 million poor people in the U.S. African-Americans and Hispanics were down to poverty levels of around 22 percent, the lowest since we started counting. Of course that "great" fact is tempered by the further fact that fewer than 10 percent of white America is poor. It seems more than a little obvious to ask what is wrong with that picture. A healthy economy is the best policy ever invented to reduce poverty, and that was the situation -- fortuitous or the result of smart policy -- that governed in the late 90s. So for the first time since the early 70s the income of people at the bottom -- the bottom half, actually -- went up. Good.

Of course somehow our Mr. Brooks neglects to mention the facts of the post-Clinton years. Four more million people in poverty in 2003 than in 2000. 35 million by 2003, And here's the one that he really ought to have acknowledged -- three million more people in extreme poverty. Get this. Extreme poverty means an income below half the poverty line -- less than 7,500 dollars for a family of three. When President Clinton left office 12 1/4 million people were in extreme poverty. By 2003 that figure had reached 15 1/4 million. In other words, over 5 percent of Americans have incomes that are below half the poverty line. Shameful, I'd say. Brooks talks about the reduction in child poverty (which occurred during the Clinton years, although he leaves out that little piece of context). A million more children fell into extreme poverty in just the first three years of the Bush Presidency. Somehow that fact doesn't appear in the column.

Okay, so that's income. We've got a long way to go there, and things are getting worse, not better, in that area, especially at the very bottom. Big omission.

Now what about the other stuff? Crime is down, yes? Violent crime is down, yes? How come we still have more than 2 million people locked up, with the number going up in 2004 over 2003, not down? How come we still lock up African-Americans and Latinos at such alarming rates? How come (credit my wife and the Children's Defense Fund for this phrase) we still have a cradle-to-prison pipeline for minorities that is more efficient than any assembly line invented by any productivity genius in world history?

I'm glad the things Brooks cited have occurred. But we have a lot of work to do. We're losing ground on health coverage -- 45 million uninsured in 2003 compared to 40 million (nothing to crow about) in 2000. There is a crisis, and I use the word advisedly, in the cost of housing for lower-income people -- it is impossible in every state in America to rent a two-bedroom apartment at the "fair market rent" on the pay from a minimum-wage job. There are more African-American men in prison than in college. And on and on. And, above all, we have a President who is proposing (and in part succeeding) with deep cuts in most of the safety-net programs that make a difference between whether people can make it through the month or not.

I would never knock virtue. But the left hand knowing what the right hand is doing, and saying so, should be a principle that applies in journalism as much as anywhere.