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.