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OUR OPINION: Be concerned - but don't despair - about poverty

Poverty, as presented in news reports such as the Herald's this week, can seem like an unsolvable problem. It certainly can feel that way to many low-income people themselves. In some cases when they tell their stories to Herald reporters, their ...

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Our Opinion

Poverty, as presented in news reports such as the Herald's this week, can seem like an unsolvable problem.

It certainly can feel that way to many low-income people themselves. In some cases when they tell their stories to Herald reporters, their despair about their circumstances leaps off the page.

It also can feel that way to social workers, guidance counselors and others on the "front lines" of society's response. These professionals see the perfect storms of circumstances that keep so many people from earning good wages and living middle-class lifestyles.

And they know how hard it is to change even one major element in an individual's life-let alone several elements, let alone several elements plus fixing the structural barriers to advancement that are beyond an individual's control.

So, it'd be understandable if readers, too, respond at first to reports such as the Herald's "Hidden Needs" series with pessimism.

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Understandable-but also short-sighted, in our view.

Because American history from 1776 to today is a history of progress against social problems. This progress hasn't been steady, and it hasn't been smooth. It hasn't even been peaceful, as the Civil War's death toll of 750,000 attests.

But it has been dramatic. And it's still happening, in its unsteady-but-unmistakable fashion: In the 1990s, North Dakota's problem was the state's "emptying out." But for the past few years, North Dakota has been filling up faster than any other state and now counts a multi-billion-dollar Legacy Fund among its assets.

Over time, some of that money is sure to be used to help address regional problems, including poverty in Grand Forks.

Here's another example, even more relevant because it doesn't depend on geological accidents such as oil: crime. If ever there was a seemingly "unsolvable" problem, it was the terrifying rise in America's urban crime rate in the 1970s and 1980s. Remember "Death Wish," the movie in which Charles Bronson goes vigilante to fight back against murderers terrorizing the streets?

Remember the real-life experience of visiting New York in about 1985-an era in which every wall of every subway car was covered with graffiti, and Times Square ranked among the seediest tourist destinations on Earth?

New York City is a completely different place today, as most Americans know. That's because somehow, the seemingly unsolvable problem of urban crime and squalor was ... well, if not solved, at least eased in a hugely positive way.

One last example, this one involving poverty itself-specifically, poverty among the elderly. "Elderly poverty in the U.S. decreased dramatically during the 20th century," the National Bureau of Economic Research reports.

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"Between 1960 and 1995, the official poverty rate of those aged 65 and above fell from 35 percent to 10 percent, and research has documented similarly steep declines dating back to at least 1939."

The point is not to endorse any one response to the problems being documented in the Herald series. The point is for Grand Forks-area readers to avoid despair. America has faced "intractable" problems before-and time and again has found them to be "tractable" after all.

And by highlighting the scope and complexities of such problems, newspapers such as the Herald hope to help bring solutions about.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

Opinion by Thomas Dennis
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