Now we judge the success of a government program by how few people it helps. By that definition, President Bush was right. Brownie really was doing a heckuva job at FEMA.Forget about homicides, rapes and armed robberies. The police have far more important priorities. Someone is stealing our garbage.
The great thing for the police is that solving these crimes doesn't take a lot of crack detective work. These heinous crimes are being carried out in broad daylight, and the perpetrators very seldom have getaway cars.
They are urban poor people walking boldly down the street with enormous plastic bags full of cans slung over their shoulders or pushing shopping carts piled high with multiple bags of this valuable loot.
The shopping carts are stolen property, too, not to mention those large refrigerator boxes that some of these people turn into plush condos for sleeping during these cool Wisconsin nights.
These poor people think they can waltz up and down our alleys, eat food out of our trash containers and then make off with our most valuable garbage, aluminum cans that have a street value of 75 cents a pound.
Well, the police are out to put a stop to crime in the streets (and alleys).
Milwaukee Municipal Judge Jim Gramling, a judge with a social conscience, told Journal Sentinel columnist Jim Stingl that he has seen a parade of poor people in front of him recently charged with stealing garbage.
Gramling, who unfortunately is retiring from the bench, said he routinely voids these tickets, which carry a fine of $122. He said he's seen police pile multiple charges onto poor people, including a $300 fine for failure to obtain a junk dealer's license.
Doesn't Gramling realize these people are committing a horrible crime by stealing our garbage? The police are trying to put a stop to it. I forget why.
We weren't really using those cans any more. But it must be the principle of the thing. When we put our cans out in the alley, we expect them to be picked up and taken to a recycling center.
Actually that's what alley scavengers are doing. They pick up the cans and take them to a recycling center that pays them 75 cents a pound for collecting about a gazillion.
In my neighborhood, we actually could use a few more freelancers. Our garbage is collected every week, but our recycling bin has been known to sit brimming with cans and newspapers for months. Old, yellowing editions of the New York Times with headlines about the Titanic curl out the top.
So the cans are getting recycled, and along the way a hard-working poor person might be able to feed his family.
People who dress up in nice suits and work in tall buildings don't work anywhere near as hard as someone who spends all day hauling enormous bags filled with cans up and down alleys.
Let's see. At 75 cents a pound, you only have to collect a hundred pounds to earn a whopping $75. You could live on that for days.
Kin Hubbard, one of those homespun humorists in my home state of Indiana, used to say that being poor is no crime, but it might as well be.
Increasingly, we criminalize the act of being poor. It may be an aesthetic thing. We don't like to see poor people. Not only do they wear unfashionable and even unsightly clothes, but they painfully remind us of their existence.
When we ended welfare in this country, we told ourselves we were doing poor people a great, big favor by forcing them to get jobs. But, of course, most of the jobs we provided for them did not pay enough to lift them and their families out of poverty.
Still, we told ourselves welfare reform was a tremendous success because we slashed the welfare rolls. It was an entirely new way to define the success of a government program.
We used to judge the success of a government program by the number of people it helped. Now we judge the success of a government program by how few people it helps.
By that definition, President Bush was right. Brownie really was doing a heckuva job at FEMA. The more people Michael Brown allowed to die in the streets of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the fewer people the Federal Emergency Management Agency had to provide services.
But this entire plan of keeping poor people out of sight and forgetting about them is destroyed if we have to see and hear poor folks rattling carts through our alleys stealing garbage.
We haven't quite reached the point of Mexico City, where entire families live in an enormous dump outside the city waiting for the garbage that sustains them to be delivered.
So our poor people have to go out and get their own garbage. You could call that entrepreneurship and the American way. Or you could call it a crime.
Joel McNally of Milwaukee writes a weekly column for The Capital Times.
© 2006 The Capital Times