The Poverty Crisis

Since the economy slid into recession a couple of years ago, New Yorkers have read about high-flying traders and dot-com visionaries brought low by the market forces they thought they’d made obsolete. In the late 1990′s, these people claimed (and some actually believed) that the business cycle had been repealed, that the future promised only boom and never bust.

They were proven wrong, of course, and now some are paying the price for their arrogance. But the real victims of the irrational exuberance of the 1990′s are the low-wage, low-skills workers who have lost their jobs in the last few years. Their plight, invisible to so many of us, was documented in the government’s most recent poverty figures. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the nation’s poverty rate grew from 11.7 percent in 2001 to 12.1 percent last year. This means that 1.7 million more Americans fell below the poverty line last year. More than 34 million Americans are now classified as poor.

What’s worse, the number of poor people may be underestimated. Because the Census Bureau’s formula is based on consumption patterns that are scandalously out-of-date-the formula was devised in the early 1960′s-the actual poverty rate may be closer to 15 percent.

These figures are troubling for several reasons. Most obviously, we are talking about our fellow citizens, many of whom share the American dream of a better life. We should also be concerned about the increase in poverty because it can lead to social unrest, racial tension and an increase in homelessness. It is neither just nor smart to sit idly by while millions of Americans conclude that they have no stake in society.

New York in particular, and urban America in general, experienced a glorious renaissance in the 1990′s. Crime declined in record numbers-so much so that New York is now the safest big city in the country, and one of the safest big cities in the world. Businesses have rediscovered the convenience of the urban central business district, and urban pioneers have transformed neighborhoods left for dead in the 1970′s.

Nobody would argue, however, that this revival marks a permanent or even a long-term change for the better in urban America. An increase in crime and unrest can-and likely will-send people packing in the blink of an eye. That’s why the new poverty figures pose a threat to New York’s future. We have worked too hard for too long to see the gains of the last decade disappear.

George Plimpton

The Manhattan literary landscape was forever altered last week when George Plimpton died in his East Side apartment at the age of 76. Throughout his long career as a writer, editor, mentor and raconteur, Plimpton created not just an admirable body of work-including over 30 books-but also a public persona which announced that the business of writing books need not be solitary or serious, but can be the adventure of a lifetime. The most startling fact of Plimpton’s celebrity is that he pulled it off with tremendous grace and ease; it was impossible not to be charmed by the tall, patrician fellow with the impeccable accent and tailoring as he rode his bicycle to events at which other guests arrived by limousine. He remained delightfully free of the curdling ambition which spoils many New York writers, editors and agents.

Plimpton’s madcap vision was as vast and startling as the city he was born in. Descendant of a Mayflower family, and son of one of the law partners of what is now Debevoise and Plimpton, young George Plimpton grew up in Manhattan’s more rarefied circles, but he wore his breeding casually, letting everyone in on the joke. He attended all the right schools-Phillips Exeter Academy, Harvard and Cambridge-and in 1953 became editor of The Paris Review , where he published the fiction of Philip Roth, Italo Calvino, V.S. Naipaul and many others, as well as long, much-discussed interviews with authors like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Ernest Hemingway. While editing the world’s most famous literary magazine, Plimpton also perfected the form of “participatory” journalism. He boxed against Archie Moore, pitched in a Major League Baseball game, teed off with Arnold Palmer, played quarterback with the Detroit Lions and traded serves with Pancho Gonzalez. He was, of course, an abysmal failure in such contests, but his ability to write about the experience allowed him to say something profound about the nature of human endeavor. Indeed, even a writer as competitive as Hemingway raved about Plimpton’s work.

When Plimpton had time to do all that writing is anyone’s guess: he turned his Manhattan apartment into a salon, where the city’s most notable writers and aspirants took the measure of the room and each other. By gathering so many of New York’s bloodthirsty literary set in one place, Plimpton was no doubt making some mischief. But he liked fireworks-literally: He helped organize the massive fireworks display celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge.

New Yorkers were shocked when news came of Plimpton’s death. His energy was so unflagging, his enthusiasms so outsized, the show surely couldn’t be over. But he leaves behind him a most unique career in modern letters, and a magazine which this month will celebrate its 50th anniversary in his absence. The Observer extends our condolences to George Plimpton’s wife, Sarah, and his children, Medora, Taylor, Laura and Olivia.

Shanah Tovah

Each year, the High Holy Days offer an opportunity for those of the Jewish faith to offer heartfelt prayers, reflect deeply and take stock of their lives. From the call of the shofar, the ram’s horn blown to herald Rosh Hashanah, to the emotional, mournful and beautiful Kol Nidre service on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, it is a time of faith and family, self-reflection and forgiveness.

The Jewish community in the United States will especially take time to consider the plight of Israel today. Those living in the Middle East have barely healed from one attack when another follows in its terrible wake. Americans have a profound connection to Israel; it is, if anyone needed reminding, the only democratic government in the entire Middle East. While it has perhaps become difficult to imagine a lasting peace, one must do so to deny victory to the terrorists and those bent on violence. This year, the emergence of anti-Semitism in parts of Western Europe is another dark cloud in the New Year sky. It is especially troubling to see anti-Semitism on college campuses in the United States.

But the power of faith and prayer is great. As families gather in New York to celebrate new beginnings and symbolically cast sins into the water, may all New Yorkers join in the spirit of renewal.