We have seen a lot of people waiting in lines lately, most abundantly to acquire a vaccine to quash a global pandemic. Despite the intentions of a democratic process, low-income areas have faced profound disparities and some downright selfish inequity. Evident are the challenges to meet this need and to achieve mass efficiency in service of saving lives and hastening a return to normalcy in society. As I inched forward in my car at Dodger Stadium for my first and second shots, I thought of the other lines, much less just and over-represented with the poor and destitute.
Every time I see or hear of people forced by hunger to line up for giveaway meals, clothing, medical care, shelter beds and other basics of life, the thought recurs that charity is an awfully dubious salve for poverty. Few events drive home this truth quicker than last December’s dithering in the White House and Senate over what size of a bone to toss those millions struggling through the Great Pandemic amid the long-awaited death spiral of a White House rightfully deserving of the pronouns I, Me, and Mine.
Whatever you call it – disaster relief, stimulus – the giveaway lines never seem to shorten, even as all but the medically fragile and a too-large gaggle of the pitifully suspicious, queue up for our lives, praise be to modern science.
Charity handouts – and the odd government bailout – make up too much of what our culture counts on to connect two sides of a perilous social chasm separating capitalism’s flat out winners on one side from everyone else. Who are they? A whole bunch of driven strivers mad-dashing their way to safety across the forbidding economic divide, while the struggling survivors or the utterly lost clamber on the other side, often with no path whatsoever to reach the threshold of the bridge.
This is what we’ve come up with after a few centuries of working it out: an economic system welcoming to all comers, powered by a near-spiritual obsession with unfettered consumption, dependent on the unachievable promise of endless growth and blithely tolerant of struggling human masses tossing and withering in a waste stream of disadvantage and despair. Our culture vaunts resilience and grit, yet the driving principle insists you get what you can any way you can while drizzling out a measure of public relief and relying on the charity care to ‘save’ those equipped poorly, or not at all, to compete. The persons experiencing homelessness living rough on the streets of every city are more than an exception that proves a brutal rule. As our economy’s cruelest externality, they are what America’s dominant religious faith rationalizes with that old saw: “the poor will always be among us.”
Having relied only once as a young man on public medical assistance, I’ve never experienced lining up for charity. But in my childhood home we came mighty close. For a while in elementary school, I ate food and wore shirts and jackets that a nice church lady offloaded in a couple of paper grocery bags through her car window to my mother standing at the end of our driveway, arms open to receive them. My face grows hot with shame to admit it, but I shied back in embarrassment peeking through the crack of our front door while my proud, gracious mother accepted the clothing. Loathe to diminish her further, I improvised excitement as we sorted through and allocated each piece of clothing to whichever of us four kids it seemed to fit. I certainly know why, as an adult, the sense still weighs heavily in me that something is profoundly wrong when, in the richest society on Earth, such scenes must take place for anyone, ever, at all.
An honest system, equally responsible for and incentivizing to the human, the market, and the environmental factors without which a society cannot thrive, would not avert its gaze when those same three controlling factors careen out of balance, as any sentient person must confess they have. The evidence is everywhere; our hearts…well, where are they? I have an idea where we might go to locate them. Say each of us walks the line for a charity giveaway near us – they’re not that tough to find – and shuffles our way forward with empathy to those whose needs have brought them to the line in the first place. For my part, I’ll step out of hiding, take my dear mother’s hand and walk with her down that driveway to help her carry the handout she never in her life expected, let alone wanted to need.
Doing so, I suspect, would take us steps closer to relearning what we deep down already know: through our beliefs and our leaders we have sown what we are seeing and, in turn, reaped this whirlwind of despair. And maybe, as a result, the next time we come face to face with those greedy gods mouthing the myth of rugged individualism, maybe then we will begin to know what to do differently in ourselves and our politics to end the lines so wrong once, forever, and for all.