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opinion | Roland Merullo

The table of the hungry

Seeing poverty first-hand changes one’s definition of need

A young boy stands near a home on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

allen russell photography

A young boy stands near a home on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

I’ve been thinking lately about an expression I once heard from a Russian friend: “The full to the table of the hungry do not go.” I suppose it’s on my mind because of the news from Washington: the well-fed insisting on political grandstanding they surely know will cause great hardship to the poorest among us. It’s quite a sight, isn’t it, men and women earning six-figure salaries and pontificating about the need for cuts to programs that overwhelmingly give succor to the worst-off — the poor, the ill, the handicapped, the helpless. Then you see these same folks making a public spectacle of kneeling in prayer and asking God to help our nation. Where I come from we have a word for that. It is “hypocrisy.”

Maybe I’m more sensitized than usual to these events because this summer my wife and daughters and I made a 3,000-mile driving trip through the American West. It was a classic road trip, complete with tours of several national parks, a close encounter with a wildfire, and even a couple of days in Vegas. The high point was hiking up the Great Sand Dunes in time to see the full moon rise over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The low point was a brief tour of the Pine Ridge Oglala Sioux Indian Reservation in southern South Dakota.

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The county occupied by that reservation is the third-poorest in the United States. The average life expectancy there is 48 years for men, 52 for women. There are astronomically high rates of everything from diabetes to tuberculosis to teen suicide to alcoholism. In fact, one in every four children born at Pine Ridge suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome. And the infant mortality rate is three times the national rate.

We spent a little money at Pine Ridge, gave some away to people who asked — with a remarkable dignity — and bought a few handmade bracelets. But while we were checking out the cemetery at Wounded Knee a young woman approached me, holding a necklace, and asked if I’d buy it from her for $20. I said no. It was a reflexive no, born of the sense that I’d done enough, and of the dislike I have, most of us have, for strangers coming up to us and asking for money.

For me, Pine Ridge put everything else — small family arguments, money worries, less than great meals — into perspective. Like most of the American poor, the Sioux Oglala are largely invisible, all but fenced off in that barren landscape, hidden from us behind a curtain of our own manufactured desires. We “need” a new car, a granite countertop, a golf club membership, a cruise to Alaska, millions for our reelection campaign. There’s nothing wrong with looking out for ourselves. . . . but meanwhile the poor, in this rich nation, stay hungry and invisible.

Not long after leaving Pine Ridge I played golf at a friend’s ritzy club in the Denver suburbs. I noticed how easy it was for me to offer to buy a round of drinks (though non-members, it turned out, couldn’t pay) which would have cost me $30 or $40 or $50. And yet, how reluctant I’d been to hand over 20 bucks to the woman at Wounded Knee whose family lived in a tent.

My wife and I give a higher percentage of our money to charity than does the average American; I tip in the 20 percent range; I do what I can in the way of volunteer and pro bono work. But for long stretches of empty road that didn’t seem enough. Where, I kept wondering, is the balance point between caring for myself and my family, and making sure hungry kids have something to eat? Where does reasonable comfort end and blind selfishness begin? If the government doesn’t help the poor and the troubled, will the rest of us really volunteer to do so?

I doubt that we’d do enough. Via some subtle psychological trickery I think we blame the poor for their plight and credit the wealthy for their success. Too often, though, neither the blame nor the credit is warranted. Back home now, watching the circus from Washington, that’s what haunts me.

Roland Merullo is the author, most recently, of the novel “Lunch with Buddha.’’ He can be reached at Roland@RolandMerullo.com.
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