The Rich and the Poor

ARE THE HAVES RESPONSIBLE for the disquieting plight of the Have-Nots?

FORTUNE Magazine, June 6, 1988, by Myron Magnet, Reporter Associate Patricia A. Langan

NO NOVELIST would dare put into a book the most extreme of the dizzying contrasts of wealth and poverty that make up the ordinary texture of life in today’s American cities. The details are too outlandish to seem credible.

Directly under the windows of the $6 million apartments that loom over Fifth Avenue, for instance, where grandees like Jacqueline Onassis or Laurence Rockefeller sleep, sleep the homeless, one and sometimes two on each park bench, huddled among bundles turned dead gray by dirt and wear. Across town last Christmas the line of fur-coated holiday makers waiting outside a fashionable delicatessen to buy caviar at only $259.95 a pound literally adjoined the ragged line of paupers waiting for the soup kitchen to open at the church around the corner. In the shiny atriums of the urban skyscrapers where 40-year-old investment bankers make seven figures restructuring the industrial landscape, derelicts with no place to go kill time. And every train or bus commuter knows that his way home to suburban comfort lies through a dreary gauntlet of homelessness and beggary.

Like Death stalking into the terror-struck banquet, the poverty that inescapably intrudes into America’s cities fills the prosperous with disquiet. What’s wrong with the country, they worry, that these pathetic souls are everywhere? Does the same system that enriches me degrade them? Am I responsible for their poverty — or for getting them out of it? Says historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, author of The Idea of Poverty: “We’re beginning to feel they’re permanent, and they demoralize the whole society.”

What really is the relation of the Haves to the Have-Nots — to the homeless and underclass — in the America of the late Eighties?

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