inspired by an e-mail from reader N.C., we plan to live-blog our panel tomorrow on Katrina and poverty. So even if you’re not in Washington, you won’t have to miss our all-star roster of speakers: Charles Murray, Star Parker, John McWhorter, and Nicole Gelinas> And if you’re in Washington, here’s the info: Tuesday, Sept. 26, refreshments at 5 p.m., panel at 5:30, at the IWF headquarters at 1776 M St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.

To whet your appetite, here’s another yarn from the annals of why the lives of families who start out under identical economic circcumstances can rapidly diverge:

Back in 1997, Kenny and Bobbi McCaughey became the parents of septuplets in Des Moines, Iowa. The McCaugheys, who would otherwise have to get by on Kenny’s modest salary, received piles of donations from generous individuals and corporations, including a 5,500-square-foot-house.

Around the same time, in Washington, D.C., electrician Lindon and Jacqueline Thompson produced sextuplets, with five of the infants surviving. The media asked: how come no presents for the Thompsoins? Is it because they’re African-American, while the McCaugheys were white? And soon enough, the donations started flooding in for the Thompsons, too, including a six-bedroom, picket-fence-surrounded house in Washington’s fast-gentrifying Brookland neighborhood, all the free diapers they could use, strollers, a stream of toys, free college educations for all five from Howard University, and a brand-new washing machine and drier.

The seven McCaughey kids now seem to be doing great, although two of them struggle with cerebral palsy related to their extremely premature births. Their devout Baptist parents home-schooled them with Bobbi for several years (the children are all now in public schools), and the adult McCaugheys have bent over backwards to provide their offspring with enrichment, including violin lessons for all seven.

The Thompson children, by contrast, are all blessed with good health, and they, too, attend public schools. There, however, the resemblance to the McCaughey children ends–and it’s not because they’re African-America. Some data from this Washington Post story about their current lives in that Brookland house:

“Jacqueline Thompson’s sister, Ann-Marie Hosang, moved in, with her son, Kenzie Borneo, now 32. Both came to help out…..

“When the children were 5, the Thompsons divorced. The trials of raising so many children contributed, Jacqueline Thompson said, to their marital problems. Lindon Thompson didn’t respond to several phone calls and visits from The Post. His $1,000-a-month child support check always comes on time, Jacqueline Thompson said, but she still struggles to make ends meet.

“Once known as Washington’s famous five, the children qualified for Medicaid. The family’s celebrity faded…..

“Living in this neighborhood of manicured lawns where many federal government workers live, the house sticks out.

“‘The neighbors — and when I say this, I think I speak for all of us, not me — have sort of a love-hate relationship with the family,’ said Christina Sheltema, who lives across the street.

“Neighbors said they adore the children but not the house. Relatives come and go, and, sometimes, neighbors say, their waves go unreturned.

“Inside the home, Thompson and her sister try to keep things as tidy as possible. They share cooking duties, and Hosang does the four girls’ hair. The toys are usually picked up, the dishes washed. The children make their beds.

“Still, some parts cannot be controlled. Heavy rains this summer caused flooding that destroyed the basement carpet. The water also short-circuited the washer and dryer wiring. Thompson said she could not afford the repairs.

“Outside, the picket fence is missing boards, and the lawn often goes uncut for weeks. The yard is cluttered with a trampoline, pogo stick, a basketball hoop and other toys donated by Toys ‘R Us.

“The Urban League of Greater Washington, Jack and Jill of America and Capital City Links help the Thompsons. They hosted the children’s ninth birthday party and have sponsored their trips to a sleep-away camp for two years. In 2005, they paid for repairs and maintenance on the house….

“There are days when everyone works together. On one such day, Thompson and the kids climbed into her blue minivan — filled with french fry boxes and cup holders sticky from spilled soda — to go to the laundromat. The kids carried bags of dirty clothes, and Octavia and Ann-Marie helped fill five double-load washers.

OK, where to start? We have these phenomena:

— Divorce. That’s a recipe for instant family poverty. Why didn’t the Thoimpson’s stick together? Here’s Jacqueline’s answer:
“Things with my husband didn’t work out, and that’s life, you understand?”


— Three adults sharing a house, not one of them apparently working. Of course it’s a good idea for a mother of seven to be a full-time mom; Bobbi McCaughey is. That accounts for Jacqueline. But what’s Ann-Marie’s excuse? And her son, Kenzie–he’s 32 years old!

— Plenty of money for takeout fries and drinks, but none for repairing the washing machine. Dontcha realize, Thompsons, that with the money you spend on a year’s worth of trips to the laundromat (plus gas), you could buy yourself another washer and drier?

—  Yo, Kenzie, you’re a grown man! If you can’t find a job, can’t you at least mow the lawn once in a while and repair the fence? And how about cleaning out your aunt’s car?

— And yo, Lindon–you may be divorced, but you’re still your children’s father. Besides mailing those support checks, couldn’t you stop by the house once in a while and maybe put your electrician’s skills to work on that wiring?

Mind you, the Thompsons are still getting plenty of free stuff: toys, government-paid medical care, those home repairs, and the big shindig hosted by the Urban League. So what’s the problem?

Does anyone really think that the difference between the McCaugheys and the Thompsons is all about race?