Early one morning, while I was purchasing my daily newspaper at a local convenience store, I noticed the clerk had a concerned and almost frightened look on her face.
Usually, I simply plunk down my money and leave. That morning, I decided to engage this woman in conversation, sensing she needed to talk.
She told me she had been working at this store for 13 years and was still working for minimum wage. Her employer had recently cut back her work time to two days a week. She now made a total of $58 per week. She looked to be in her early forties and has two children. She does not have another source of income nor prospects for another job.
She went on to say she was going to resign her job, finally realizing she would never get the opportunity for promotion or a higher income. It was clear from her expression she was personally and spiritually demoralized. I tried to be upbeat with her, but I knew my faint encouragement was too late. I was seeing for myself a real, live, breathing, sad human being who was about to fall “between the cracks.”
Reluctantly and with a sense of helplessness, I said goodbye to this woman and left. I am still haunted by her expression, knowing there are millions of other Americans in her same terrible situation.
Many, and probably most, of these people are victims of circumstance. They were born poor and were not given the opportunity to excel. They didn’t have positive and supportive role models who encouraged them. Their families had no money to send them to college.
As I’m accustomed to doing when reaching home with my paper, I settled into my favorite chair to read the headlines and digest the day’s news. It was then it struck me. In vivid and in painfully realistic color, I was observing why our country is in trouble.
The stark contrast between the warring ideologies in Washington suddenly became clear to me. Before, I had simply mused that our society was broken. Now it was clear why.
The headlines told the story. One political party was not going to extend unemployment insurance for those without jobs unless the other party agreed to extend the federal tax cuts to the wealthy, the top 2 percent of our population. In a country where the top 1 percent owns 30 percent of the wealth, we were quibbling over preventing people from going without food, lodging and paying for medical care.
As we as a country spend billions of dollars each month fighting foreign wars, we are allowing our own citizens to endure hardships through no fault of their own. We are endlessly debating as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. No one is born aspiring for poverty and misfortune. Being poor is not a sin; it is a shame.
As a country, we pride ourselves as being “exceptional.” We claim that fate has favored us with a unique gift. We imagine ourselves as God’s Chosen People and purveyors of freedom and generosity.
We think so highly of ourselves as the only world superpower, but we are neglecting the very people who have made us great—–our middle class, especially those who have “fallen through the cracks.”
We have forgotten the adage, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”