Citizens of the Welfare State

Like most Americans of my generation, my experience of poverty has been self-inflicted. "Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift." Dylan's little fantasy of "Maggie's Farm' takes on grim reality when the scholar-gypsy turns to waiting tables or substitute teaching, being in general what my parents were unkind enough to call a "bum."

During these little episodes below the poverty line, I never worried. The lowest I ever sank was to work as a flunky in a "retirement hotel," where the class differences between the flunkies were graphically illustrated every Friday. We were working mostly for room and board, but for overtime we were paid something like minimum wage. The students and ex-students would cash their checks, do their laundry, buy shaving cream, and go out and party on what remained. The street-wise boys knew better. Their life had always been more or less dismal, but once a week they had just enough money to do things that ought to land them in jail. By Saturday, they were trying to borrow money.

Besides, I shared the conviction—the birthright of every middle-class American—that anyone can make a decent living if only he is willing to do the work. I have seen nothing, read nothing in the past 20 years to alter that opinion. Of course, it is easier to be optimistic when there are parents and friends who will pick you up and dust you off,...

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