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Sunday, December 25, 2011

Census poverty report deserved mention in Telegraph

Gary Vincent
Reader Advocate

Fond as we are of our status in holding the first presidential primary, New Hampshire has always drawn criticism over it because our state is wealthier, better educated and ethnically far less diverse than the rest of the nation.

In response, primary backers point to the “retail” nature of campaigning here – the face-to-face interaction between voters and candidates that supposedly allows us to make acute judgments about the presidential hopefuls. Plus, the size of the state allows less well-funded candidates to still get their message out.

The debate will likely go on as long as the New Hampshire primary remains first in the nation. But there is no question that the things cited as to why the Granite State is not typical of the rest of the country are, in fact, true: We are wealthier and better educated, overall, and we are orders of magnitude less ethnically diverse than most of the country.

Perhaps that is why a story that broke Dec. 15 got so little play in The Telegraph – in fact, none that I could find. The story said the latest U.S. Census Bureau data show that nearly one in every two Americans has fallen into poverty or is scraping by on earnings that classify as low income.

I was appalled. My immediate reaction was that this story, confirming as it does trends that have been reported on periodically for years, would be big, big news in the nation’s newspapers and on the TV broadcast and cable nets.

But … nothing. Or at least not much. The news columns and airwaves continued to be filled with the latest gaffes and speculation, in particular as to whether the boomlet of support for Newt Gingrich really had legs. The Telegraph’s lead story the next day, Dec. 16, reported on a controversial plan to redraw the district lines for the New Hampshire House of Representatives – a worthy story but not really a grabber to the average citizen.

To be fair, The Telegraph is continuing its long-running Telegraph Santa Fund, which collects toys, clothes and money to make the season a little brighter for those in the local area who are struggling.

In fact, the left two-thirds of the front page Dec. 16 was given over to a story about volunteers searching through Alec’s Shoes, a local landmark, picking out new footwear for the needy.

And the bell-ringers are out at malls and supermarkets as the Salvation Army works, as it does every year, to help those in need. So it isn’t as though the less fortunate are ignored.

All those things help. But a story like the one that Thursday, based on hard census data, shows that such efforts have not, overall, stemmed the national tide of poverty and despair.

“Poverty” and “scraping by” on earnings that classify people as low income – what does that mean?

It comes down to food, shelter, clothing and medical care. The story is saying that, on any given day, half of our fellow citizens are ill-housed, ill-clothed, hungry or sick, or just on the edge of that.

And this in a country that we, with considerable pride, call the richest, freest, most powerful nation on earth at this or any other time.

There are other opinions. In an AP story, “Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, questioned whether some people classified as poor or low-income actually suffer material hardship. He said that while safety-net programs have helped many Americans, they have gone too far. He said some people described as poor live in decent-size homes, drive cars and own wide-screen TVs.”

Well, it is Christmas, after all. In an earlier Christmas season, Rector might have been the guy who asked: “Are there no poor farms? No workhouses?”

And a while ago, a Wall Street Journal editorial described Americans who make so little that they owe no federal income tax as “lucky duckies.”

But, strangely enough, you never hear of “senior research fellows” or Wall Street Journal editorial writers offering to trade places with those they so airily dismiss as “lucky duckies” or the recipients of safety-net programs that have “gone too far.”

Maybe the fact that we in New Hampshire are relatively well off makes this story seem like such an anomaly that it did not attract much attention. And other stories that describe the plight of the jobless or those who have seen their paychecks stay the same or shrink while the cost of living – and, in many cases, the cost of just surviving – zooms out of sight may also seem to be describing some remote foreign place.

But the problem is not remote, as the census figures show. It is real and it is national.

It has been said the most dangerous man of all is the one with nothing to lose. That describes nearly half of us, and we ignore that fact at our peril. The story should have received more play, for it has implications far beyond the dry numbers of a census report.

Gary Vincent spent 21 years in newspapers before leaving for a career in high tech. The longtime Hudson resident isn’t an employee of The Telegraph and is free to act independently. Readers are encouraged to bring any issue to his attention at readeradvocate@nashuatelegraph.com.