Column: The portrait in Ogden’s Attic

Wednesday , September 13, 2017 - 1:09 PM2 comments

By MICHAEL VAUGHAN Special to the Standard-Examiner

The protagonist in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray displays an exterior of youth and beauty. Dorian is fixated on the image he displays to the world. Meanwhile, a portrait hidden in Dorian’s attic provides a continuing visual record of his true character, which is a life of selfishness and debauchery.

Wilde was making a statement about human nature. Few of us are immune from vanity. Department store dressing rooms have mirrors for a reason. The most popular New Year’s resolution is to lose weight. Notable politicians are more concerned with the appearance of their comb-over than the nature of their character.

The preoccupation with appearances extends to the manner in which the citizens of a community choose to both view and portray their community. The marketing materials disseminated by cities are long on positive imagery but short of an accurate and complete portrayal of the community.

Wilde was under no illusion that his novel would cause a sea change in human nature. Both people and communities are inevitably subject to a streak of vanity. Yet, I believe that one of Wilde’s objectives was to prompt at least a moment of meaningful self-reflection. With this in mind, I think it may be useful to wade through some of the economic data deeply hidden in Ogden’s attic and see the picture of Ogden that emerges.

One of the uglier features of Ogden’s portrait is the extent of poverty in the community. Of the 10 largest cities in Utah, Ogden has the second highest rate of poverty. Ogden’s poverty rate of 23 percent is significantly above that of the state of Utah, which has a poverty rate of 13 percent. It is important to keep in mind that these data describe the entire city of Ogden, not merely the central city.

What does poverty mean? In economic terms, poverty is defined as the amount of income needed to secure what the federal government considers the reasonable essentials of life. Currently, the U.S. Federal guidelines define those poverty levels as $12,060 for a single person, $16,240 for a family of two, and $20,420 for a family of three.

Returning to the portrait of Ogden, it is clear that poverty has a disparate impact on different groups. In Ogden, 33 percent of Hispanic residents and 38 percent of African Americans live in poverty. These rates compare with a rate of 18 percent for white, non-Hispanics living in Ogden.

One of the highest incidents of poverty in Ogden is found among single mothers. In Ogden, 49 percent of all single mothers live in poverty. If you are a single mother, you and your children essentially have a 50/​50 chance of living in poverty. Moreover, almost a third of Ogden’s families with children are families headed by a single woman.

As a result of the high poverty rate for single mothers, as well as other compounding factors, the poverty rate for Ogden’s young people is deeply troubling. Slightly more than 30 percent of all those under the age of 18 live in poverty. For those under the age of 5, the poverty rate is 33 percent. Ogden’s poverty rate for children is more than double that of the state of Utah.

Finally, the rate of poverty in Ogden isn’t dropping. Ogden’s overall poverty rate has hovered around 20 to 23 percent for much of the past decade. Many have flourished from Ogden’s economic development efforts, but Ogden’s poor have not seen much benefit from the city’s prosperity.

Dorian was repulsed by the picture in attic. Still, if Dorian had spent more time reflecting on the portrait, he might have made some productive changes in his life. Similarly, many may feel revulsion when they think about the extent of poverty in Ogden and prefer to put thoughts of poverty out of their head.

Yet, that isn’t productive. The first step in addressing a problem is recognizing that a problem exists. Ogden clearly has a problem with poverty. It deserves a closer look.

Dr. Michael Vaughan is a Weber State University economics professor and directs the Center for the Study of Poverty & Inequality. Email: mvaughan@weber.edu

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