This week we learn that the poverty rate in America has gone over 15 percent. It's not been this high for almost two decades. The numbers in Virginia are not as bad, but they're plenty bad enough and getting worse.
People are suffering. What attitude are we to take toward that suffering?
In my many years of conducting radio conversations here in the Shenandoah Valley, I learned that a lot of people feel suspicious toward the poor. The image that's brought up to support that attitude is of the poor person as lazy, poor simply because they're not willing to pull their own weight. Those who focus on that image of poverty are more likely to be hostile than compassionate in their feelings toward the poor.
(That cheering for the "Let 'em die" remark, at the Republican presidential debate, regarding the hypothetical uninsured sick person, was a more extreme version of that same attitude. With his irresponsible decisions, the thinking goes, he made his bed, so let him lie in it. Or die in it.)
For those who look to the Bible for moral wisdom, the more than 3,000 times the Bible emphasizes the importance of attending to the suffering of the poor, and looking out for the widows and orphans, would seem a clear message that compassion is the more moral attitude.
Sometimes the image of the poor person as lazy, as responsible for his own predicament, is accurate. But even in good times, that's hardly the rule.
And in America today, these are not good times. It is not laziness that explains why 23 percent of Virginia's workers earned wages too low to support a family of four above the 2009 poverty threshold. It is not laziness that explains why the bottom 60 percent of American families are losing ground while only the segment making more than $100,000 a year is getting richer.
It was the Great Depression that enabled America to become a more humane and compassionate society in terms of helping those in need. People were able to see more clearly the part of the truth contained by the idea "There but for the grace of God go I." Those who were not cast down by the economic disaster saw that people "just like us," people who just happened to have the misfortune of working for wrong enterprise, were struggling.
Now, in Virginia, the college-educated are among those over-represented in the newly poor. Contrary to those who conflate poverty with racial minorities, more than half of Virginia's poor are white.
Times like these test a society's spirit. Can we recognize that we are all in this together? Can we deal compassionately with those upon whom these hard times have fallen the hardest?
Will we citizens demand that our government be innovative and imaginative in developing solutions to the problems our struggling economy cannot now solve, putting people back to work, helping ease the pain and insecurity of these hard times?