The Book of the Poor: Who They Are, What They Say, and How To End Their Poverty

The Book of the Poor: Who They Are, What They Say, and How To End Their Poverty

by Kenan Heise

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This stirring work takes readers on a heartbreaking, illuminating, and inspiring journey into the homes and lives of the 16 percent who live below the poverty threshold. Author and retired Chicago Tribune reporter Kenan Heise culls 50 years of his published interviews with the poor and destitute to allow them to tell their own stories in their own voices to


This stirring work takes readers on a heartbreaking, illuminating, and inspiring journey into the homes and lives of the 16 percent who live below the poverty threshold. Author and retired Chicago Tribune reporter Kenan Heise culls 50 years of his published interviews with the poor and destitute to allow them to tell their own stories in their own voices to provide a sobering call to action. With full discussions on a myriad of topics—including the history of poverty, the use of drugs and alcohol among the poor, the lasting result of Reaganomics, the importance of minimum wage, and the relationship between the media and the poor—The Book of the Poor provides clear and concrete steps that can be taken to end poverty in America.

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"I think it altogether possible that in Kenan Heise's pages there might well be as much to learn about love and sharing as in anything heretofore written."  —Allan W. Eckert, author, The Frontiersmen

"Kenan Heise's book is filled with haunting phrases and broken hearts, yet it also somehow manages to be a book in which hope refuses to die completely."  —Robert Cromie, Peabody Award-winning television show host

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Marion Street Press, LLC
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The Book of the Poor

Who They Are, What They Say, and How to End their Poverty

By Kenan Heise

Marion Street Press

Copyright © 2012 Kenan Heise
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-936863-34-1


Are You Poor?

While Thomas Jefferson was in France in 1785, he wrote the following in a letter to James Madison:

As soon as I had got clear of the town I fell in with a poor woman walking at the same route with myself and going the same course. Wishing to know the condition of the labouring poor I entered into conversation with her, which I began by enquiries for the path which would lead me into the mountains: and thence proceeded to enquiries into her vocation, condition and circumstance. She told me she was a day labourer, at 8. sous or 4 d. sterling the day; that she had two children to maintain, and to pay a rent of 30 livres for her house (which would consume the hire of 75 days), that often she could get no emploiment, and of course was without bread. As we had walked together near a mile and she had so far served me as a guide, I gave her, on parting, 24 sous. She burst into tears of a gratitude which I could perceive was unfeigned, because she was unable to utter a word. She had probably never before received so great an aid. This little attendrissement, with the solitude of my walk led me into a train of reflections on that unequal division of property which occasions the numberless instances of wretchedness which I had observed and is to be observed all over Europe.

I had an encounter of my own some 226 years later.

"Are you poor?" I asked the woman sitting next to me on a bench as we waited for public transportation.

Nothing in her appearance or demeanor indicated that she was poor or was not. My question would seem to be a social no-no. Many people forced by their circumstances to answer yes would tend to consider it a matter of shame to be poor. How dare I, then, take a chance of embarrassing her by making such an inquiry?

Her straightforward glance, however, had given me a certain boldness to raise the question. It had encouraged me to believe she would find my question respectful rather than intrusive.

We had been talking for several minutes. In our conversation, the subject of poverty had arisen and she had demonstrated a marked sympathy for people in want. As a result, I felt the freedom to ask what I did. Other discussions over the years have taught me that, if people feel they can trust you, they are more than willing to throw off the invisible cloak of being down and out and speak about their lives on a personal basis.

Hesitantly, she answered, "Yes."

Then, even more openly, she continued,

Saying we are poor is a reality check for me. I have three small children and my husband is young. The only work he can find is moving furniture. It pays very little and he barely makes enough to meet the rent. We have to rely on the government for help in putting food on the table and getting any of the health care my children need.

Hesitating for a second, she added "There is much we need that we do not have. Still, so many are lots poorer than we are; but, yes, I am — we are — poor."

A frustrating sadness edged her words; but I heard no complaining, no "feel sorry for me" message in them.

She got up, smiled, boarded the vehicle and went away.

A homeless friend, with whom I discussed this conversation and who called himself "very poor," commented:

A lot of us try to hide that we are poor. I don't know the real reason why we do. I try to look my very best so people won't know and won't feel sorry for me. I don't want people to feel sorry for me. That is the way most of us are.

As a result, people don't begin to know how many of us there are. My teenage son was living with my ex-wife, his mother. I rarely went to see him because I did not want him to know I was living on the streets.

Finally, I decided he was old enough and I should tell him the truth. His mother agreed.

He was deeply relieved.

"I always thought it was because you didn't love me," he said.

He then took me around and introduced me to all of his friends.

The similarities in the encounters that Thomas Jefferson and I had can say much about poverty, what it is and what we can do about it.

First and foremost, poverty is personal and grinds people down like waves against rocks. Those two women — 226 years apart — exemplified this wearing down course in those details of their lives, which they elected to share. And, unbelievably, there is a historical connection between the two women.

It is a constitutionally affirmed obligation of the United States government to deal with poverty and destitution and to raise taxes to do so under its responsibility "to promote the general welfare." That is what the courts have said and men and women in the military over the years have died for.

The woman whom Jefferson met on the path was representative of a significant group of people in history — the desperately poor women of France, who would out of their desperation four years later help initiate the French Revolution.

The one who opened up to Jefferson about her desperate financial need was of the same material as the wick that was lit and caused France to explode in the 1780s. The political rebellion was not first against the ages- old French monarchy, which believed it had a divine right to rule, but so that peasants would not starve.

She conceivably could have been one of the women in the Paris marketplaces on October 5, 1789, who broke out in a near-riot over their poverty and the high price and scarcity of bread.

They felt angry and trapped. The storming of the Bastille prison had been four months earlier and had inspired in them an incipient sense of rebellion. Then, joined by other protestors, the women marched on the city armory, ransacked it for weapons and continued onto to the royal palace at Versailles 20 kilometers away. The crowd — which had grown into the thousands by then — was able to compel the king, his family, and the entire French Assembly to return from Versailles to Paris. In doing so, the crowd had demystified, if not all but dethroned, the king.

Jefferson was then the American ambassador to France. He was, at this point, strongly supportive of the direction in which events were going in France. He left the country, shortly after the historical Women's March on Versailles to serve under George Washington as America's first Secretary of State.

In meeting the woman on the path, Jefferson was encountering one of the ten million underpaid, underfed, or starving peasants in France. As he wrote the letter, he and James Madison were engaged in a correspondence on how much the Articles of Confederation, which governed the newly formed union of the American states, needed to be changed. The poverty of the woman helped throw in a new quotient. The issues that fomented the French Revolution were far more associated with poverty and the immediate needs of the poor, than were the core issues that created the American Revolution. The drafters of the United States Constitution would have to address human need, in whatever document they generated to form a more perfect union.

It was in this context that Madison would add a highly significant phrase, "the general welfare," first to a revision of his home state's constitution called "The Virginia Plan," then to the United States Constitution, and finally to a section of the document that gave the new government the right to tax citizens. The phrase — deliberately or not — cemented the people's needs to the purview of American government.

In an 1831 letter written in his old age, Madison raised some question about limiting the intentions of the phrase, but the Articles of Confederation, the Virginia Plan, and the United States Constitution all contained those words and the Constitution specifically listed it as a justification for raising taxes.

Whatever his intentions might have been then, Madison's very deliberate phrase had opened the door to the government of the United States accepting the responsibility inherent in the words of the Declaration of Independence, "created equal" and "the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Those two women who spoke of their lives — 226 years apart — stand like sentinel interpreters of the theme in this book: What the poor want and need is a slice of the bread of abundance, and their right to earn it. The two both acknowledged to the interviewer that they were poor. Their words approach us, however, not with beggars' cups or sad tales, but as neighbors illuminating the truth about poverty and why we need to mitigate and, if possible, end it.

We do not choose to riot, break into an armory and take up guns, nor haul off out of their castles those who own the wealth. There are, fortunately, other ways we can select.

This generation has created a new sense of protest and indignity over the very issues, which were ripe in the 1780s. And those who seek to occupy Wall Street and other power places in this nation have made it clear the issue concerns the general welfare and the need and responsibility of We the People and the government we founded to maintain it.

As a journalist since 1958, I have interviewed hundreds living in poverty in America. I published them in two books and four newspapers. One the most memorable interviews was with an African-American woman on the West Side of Chicago. She called herself "Big Mama," referring — I believe — to her role in her household and neighborhood as well as her weight. I had asked her the question, "How do you survive when there is no money coming in?"

She spoke in a voice that she later acknowledged as "speakin' Southern":

Don't ask me how you survive when the money stops coming in. That's what I wants to know. But I'll tell ya what ya cuts down on first.

The first things peoples can cuts down on are gas and lights. Ya puts more clothes on. I even saved $5 one month by burning an oil lamp.

But ya really have to have one 40-watt bulb in the house to see and read by. The rest can be 25-watt light bulbs. And it's a sin to burn a light during the day. I went in one house and theys had a 75-watt bulb and theys even had to use a shade.

And ya can turn yer refrigerator off at night if ya ain't got any perishable meats in it.

We uses gas and that's expensive. But the gas company is good. They shuts off the gas and I goes downstairs and turns it back on. They knows me.

I hear that one onion is worth a whole plate of anything else. So we cuts up an onion and puts it over rice or potatoes. Or ya can cut out the vegetable if ya got canned fruit. They counts the same.

Mainly, we fill 'em up on potatoes or rice or spaghetti or corn bread. You don't feeds 'em potatoes or corn bread at the same meal like some people I know. And the rich people has salads and vegetables at the same meals. That ain't necessary for nobody.

Ain't none of these kids right now got any underwear. I can get an undershirt for 20 cents at Goodwill.

A woman's dress is the best thing to buy for a child or a lil girl cuz it's got the best materials in it. All you got to do is cut it down and ya got a real good dress.

You can get by, but you can't survive.

For entertainment we all goes to church.


Poverty in the Lives of Three Women

The big (poverty) numbers muscle out an important back story: without government programs, poverty levels would be even worse.


The three women whose interviews create the framework of the prior chapter tell us much about what being poor means. The first, the woman in France, was poor and the only help we see her getting was occasioned by an accidental meeting in 1785 with a future president of the United States. We speculate about her being in a parallel situation with the women whose desperation four years later ignited the bloody French Revolution.

The second is a woman of today, able to get by and live with her poverty because government programs help supplement her husband's low wages. Her family needs more and the right to earn it. She wants not to be poor. In the meantime, she is short of being desperate, but only because her country has come to her family's assistance.

The third is a woman who was interviewed in 1964 and has had to cut down on everything on her table and in her house for her children to survive. The interview with her was before the War on Poverty programs and food stamps that changed the lives of individuals such as she. She was more like the French peasant woman than the poor woman today.

In the next five years after my interview with her (1965 to 1969), the War on Poverty would help lift 12 million Americans out of the kind of poverty that she and her children were experiencing.

What if those millions of the poor had not had their lives improved? What might have happened to their children beyond whatever did? Would the economy have stalled? Would our nation and their world have become even more dysfunctional? Would something comparable to the Women's March on Versailles have occurred? Would there have been a French Revolution-type uprising?

What did happen is that poverty was sliced almost in half by 1972 and the desperation of many cut by more than that. Poverty has continued to grow over the last five decades, receiving a jolt from cuts in services for the needy during the Reagan administration.

The aid that came under the stimulus programs included the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the food stamp program that now helps put more and healthier food on the table for millions of people each month.

Jodie Levin-Epstein shows us the powerful and helpful effects of government programs in the lives of the poor in the following article that appeared on The Huffington Post September 13, 2011. She is the deputy director of Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity and writes for

Poverty Reduction: The Invisible Hand of Government

The big numbers (in the United States Census Bureau's 2011 report of the number of people living below the poverty threshold) muscle out an important backstory: without government programs, poverty levels would be even worse.

In part, this tale has not made it to center stage because it's easier to talk about how many people are living in poverty but far more difficult to draw attention to how much worse it would be without interventions. Another reason is that there are political forces dedicated to dismissing the role of government so that they can shrink it and "drown it in the bathtub." Even if that means, for example, that more people will fall into poverty.

To count as poor in 2010, annual pre-tax income for a family of four must have been below $22,314, which translates into $107.00 per person per week. The Census data reveal that in 2010:

• The poor are getting poorer with nearly half (44 percent) living in extreme poverty, which is less than half of the threshold. This translates into about $11,000 per year for a family of four, or $53 per person per week. The 20.5 million who live in extreme poverty is the highest ever recorded. Their numbers are greater than Florida's entire population.

• Full-time workers too often are among the poor including 2.6 million who work full-year. Their numbers are equivalent to Nevada's entire population.

• Too many children are poor with those under age 18 making up more than one-third (35.5 percent) of those living in poverty even though they are only 24.4 percent of the total population.

• Elder poverty has not disappeared with one of every 11 seniors living in poverty.

As much as poverty has grown, it would have been worse without government playing a role. More than 4.5 million people stayed out of poverty during the Great Recession thanks to seven provisions in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, according to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report, which used an improved poverty measure to assess the impact. In New York City, the Center for Economic Opportunity found that government programs and policies reduced poverty by 3 percentage points between 2008 and 2009. An analysis in three states by the Urban Institute found that child poverty was cut in half due to safety net programs.


Excerpted from The Book of the Poor by Kenan Heise. Copyright © 2012 Kenan Heise. Excerpted by permission of Marion Street Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Kenan Heise is an award-winning author and journalist as well as an inductee into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame. A retired reporter, columnist, and staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, he served for 17 years as the editor of the “Action Line” column and for 15 years as the chief obituary writer. He is the author of 25 books, including He Writes About Us and They Speak for Themselves: Interviews with the Destitute of Chicago. He lives in Chicago.

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