These days, as Covid-19 restricts in-person shopping, I look forward eagerly to deliveries. It’s like waiting for the Wells Fargo wagon. Yesterday, I got a new laptop power cable.  Also, a hearing aid to replace the one that fell out somewhere while I was fooling with my mask. And a roll of sponge rubber for the backing of a sofa bed mechanism. And a package of four nonabrasive, Swedish scrub cloths from a company called Eco Maniac.

Judging by the amount of stuff piled up in the building’s holding room, I’d say my pattern is common. Not just in New York apartments either, but among well-off people in every living situation.

But to point out the obvious – not everyone is well off. For many Americans, unemployment checks, small and inadequate to begin with, are about to end, and the likelihood of their ever again earning wages has begun to seem slight. They are a month – or more – behind on rent and can hardly imagine catching up.

When I’m at Whole Foods Market buying expensive organic vegetables and anything else I want, they are lining up at food banks for whatever is on offer. I check my credit card statements for fraudulent charges. They toss card cancelation notices in the trash. I stop by an ATM for walking-around money. They redeem cans and bottles for a nickel apiece. I have no doubt that next month I will be as free from want as I am this month. They are often stupefied by the absence of hope.

Congress is talking about establishing a national service obligation. That could be helpful in all sorts of ways. Like the WPA was or Teach for America or the Peace Corps. If I could, I would require a variation on it: everyone would be required to know poverty and hopelessness for a while. Not endlessly, the way it often is in actuality – just long enough to instill empathy and compassion for the less fortunate.

From time to time when I was a child, my dad would be out of work, and money got frighteningly short. Not desperately. We didn’t miss any meals; my mother would just stretch the food dollar a little further. But the pain of no work hung in the air. Daddy would go the union hall in the morning to see if anybody was hiring pipefitters (it was all he knew how to do), and too often he would come back home unsuccessful, the weight of fear and shame reflected in the way he moved. It got my attention, and it formed for good how I see and what I feel.

A period of poverty as national service would require magic. Entering it would be sudden and without warning, the way poverty often is. Of critical importance, the participant would not know that it was a temporary condition. Then when it was over, no recollection of it would remain; graduates would simply be changed, as by a strong but unremembered dream or nightmare.

To be sure, some people who survive a period in straitened circumstances come out of it selfish and mean, but then so do some people who have known nothing other than privilege. Still, on balance, I think the country would be better off – more empathetic, less selfish, more inclined to value the common good – if  somehow all Americans had to go through a time of want before moving up to the new-car-every-two-or-three-years /private-school/good-medical-care-on-demand way of being.

For that matter, it might also be beneficial to have a second year in which high privilege and a sense of certainty would be the way of life. It could give those born in desperate circumstances that seem insurmountable some sense – unremembered though it would be – of hope and possibility.


  1. Deborah Scrimpsher

    Once again another poignant and thoughtful commentary on what seems like an unending bad dream. Have you thought about running for office?

  2. Carol Haley

    your father was sometimes out of work. boo hoo. my father flew the coop and left my mother high and dry, adopted the child of his new wife and then had 2 more, and couldn’t be bothered to pay child support. My dear mother worked several jobs and made sure I had plenty. When she wised up and reported that her child support hadn’t been paid and her attorney requested the payment be sent to him instead of my mom so he could be reported, my dad would call mom and beg to call of the law. The child support payment did not even cover my dancing lessons! Wake up. It takes the American I can do it attitude of my mother and others, not the government to bail losers out!!!!!!

  3. Nathaniel F. Queen, Jr., OSJ

    I agree, in princip;e, with your idea. Most of our population is compromised in how to survive. I recall a child born of wealthy Park Avenue parents. His father loss the family business because of changing in the manufacturing process, cheaper labor abroad, and in the inability to adapt the business model that wa=orked for his father. The business eventually was shot down, factory closed, long-time employees let go and a dramatic change in the owner’s lifestyle. No more Saturday lunches at Grenouille or Caravelle. No more month long tour of Europe in the summer or ability to support a summer house. They lost it all. Their only son knew nothing but this life. Aspired to be an actor, a usually dubious career choice, it’s like playing Russian roullle with your life, the grandson of the founder of the company was ill prepared for a life that didn’t exist on Park Avenue and revolved around a sumptuous lifestyle. He would have benefitted from such an experience described to make his way through life, but he had been crippled by being raised knowing only privilege and what it allows one to do.

  4. F. C. Rosenberg

    You recall to mind the Stephen Foster Lyrics, as the melody rings in my ears:

    “Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears
    While we all sup sorrow with the poor
    There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears
    Oh Hard times come again no more

    Tis the song, the sigh of the weary
    Hard times, hard times, come again no more
    Many days you have lingered around my cabin door
    Oh hard times come again no more

    While we seek mirth and beauty and music bright and gay
    There are frail forms fainting at the door
    Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
    Oh hard times come again no more

    Tis the song, the sigh of the weary
    Hard times, hard times, come again no more
    Many days you have lingered around my cabin door
    Oh hard times come again no more

    Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave
    Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
    Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
    Oh hard times come again no more”



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