“Excellent,” the chairman replied. “We’re meeting here for the next several days to renew our mandate. If you’re interested, we’ve got openings for the right sort of people.” Hoping he was the right sort of person, Bidwell agreed to an interview.
“Join me for dinner at my hotel,” the chairman said.
To show that he was in solidarity with the poor, Bidwell revealed that he didn’t drive. “I’ll take the bus,” he said.
“The bus?” the chairman gasped into the phone.
“I’m sorry,” Bidwell said, fearing that he had undermined his credibility. “I usually walk, but your hotel is so far from where I live, I wouldn’t make it on time.”
“Give me your address,” the chairman said. “I’ll send around a limo.”
When they met, he urged Bidwell to register for the meeting. He said it was important for prospective anti-poverty workers to experience the culture before signing on.
“Move downtown for the duration,” he advised. “We go day and night.”
“I could pitch a tent in the hotel parking lot,” Bidwell said, eager to bolster his anti-poverty credentials.”
“We don’t stay in tents,” the chairman scolded. “We might deny the poor a place to live?”
“I’d be willing to share … ”
“Never mind,” the chairman said. “If you’re serious about joining us, we have funds to cover your hotel room. Our donors have been generous this year.”
He insisted that Bidwell take the limo home to pack.
“We’ll dine fashionably late,” he said.
Bidwell had never stayed in a five star hotel before. Having dressed down to avoid even a hint of conspicuous wealth, he felt out of place in the exquisitely appointed dining room. When the tuxedo-clad waiter asked for his order, Bidwell told him his tastes were rather plain.
“Perhaps a small bowl of rice,” he said, “or a helping of beans and a cup of hot water, if you have it.”
“That’s what poor people eat,” his host interrupted. “Do you want to deprive them of food?”
“Heavens no,” Bidwell declared, afraid he was giving the wrong impression. “I’ll settle for what you’re ordering.” They had an eight-course meal with on steak and lobster and washed down with wines he’d never heard of.
From their nametags, Bidwell saw that quite a number of anti-poverty workers were dining fashionably late with meals similar to theirs. Like his host, they conscientiously selected food and drink that the poor rarely, if ever, consume.
How noble, Bidwell thought. Theirs is a sacrifice not everyone is prepared to make, but his host and the others made it without complaint through the four-day meeting. Bidwell hadn’t realized that fighting poverty could be fattening. Nevertheless, he was willing to risk it. He signed on as an anti-poverty worker between the baked Alaska and the after-dinner liqueurs.
With the enthusiasm of a convert, he arrived early for every breakfast, luncheon, and dinner meeting, and was first in line at the receptions, where they discussed poverty over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.
For recreation, he frequented a pub a couple of fellow activists christened The White Elephant. There, they regaled him with amusing tales of electric blankets shipped to the tropics, flush toilets sent to refugee camps without plumbing, expired drugs and outdated food dispatched to combat disease and hunger, tents donated to the well-housed starving and surplus grain to the well-fed homeless. What a way to unwind.
Of course, he also took in the business sessions. There they heard stirring reports from academics they funded to study poverty; exciting recommendations from consultants they hired to tell them how to alleviate poverty; fascinating proposals from experts they paid to help them raise money for more academics and consultants; bold suggestions from the ranks to raise salaries, not for their own sake, mind you, but for the sake of the anti-poverty movement, which needed higher pay to attract more workers.
Bidwell learned that we’ve waged a war on poverty for half a century. Why, that’s longer than most of the wars he studied in school. Is the war winnable? He couldn’t say. What he could say is that if we won it, there’d be so many anti-poverty workers unemployed we’d have to wage another one.
When he asked his host whether it was winnable, he couldn’t say, either.
“If it’s not winnable,” he said, “we can all be thankful that it’s fundable.