One of the saddest sights I’ve been seeing over the last six months is the growing number of people standing in the median at busy intersections, holding signs, and begging. These are young people, and on ratty pieces of cardboard they tell their stories.
“Laid off, 4 kids, can’t pay rent.”
“Laid off, 2 kids, going to be evicted.”
They cram as much as they can about their circumstances in the little bit of space provided by the end of a carboard box. They walk up and down in the heat and rain, hoping someone at a stoplight will take pity.
Few people seem to. There’s a tendency not to believe these signs, mainly because people who’ve never been there don’t realize how little assistance public assistance actually provides. And then an awful lot of people just think, “Get a job.” Well, if you go out for any job opening these days, even the part-time ones at fast food places, you’ll find hundreds of applicants for that small number of jobs. Job seekers are standing in line for hours to fill out applications, hoping to get an interview, and in the end only three or four will get hired.
Time and again, I hear people say, “I’ve been looking for months. I never even get an interview.” It took my daughter a year and a half, but she’s 17. So maybe she doesn’t count in the same way?
Actually, she does, because most of the handful of jobs that are available now are apt to be given to teens because employers are more than willing to take youngsters who, they feel will continue to work for minimum wage. When they see older people applying, they almost always get dismissed out of hand because “they’ll move on as soon as a better job comes along.”
The problem seems to be that there are no better jobs, and if there are, there are even fewer of them than the minimum wage jobs at fast food places and groceries.
But there’s another problem, too. No part-time minimum wage job is going to pay the rent or the utilities. But it severely affects the kind of assistance you receive. It may even cost you assistance, which was never enough to begin with. Yes, you’ll continue to receive foodstamps if you have kids, but foodstamps only buy food. They don’t pay rent, and they don’t pay for water or electric.
So there are a lot of people begging from their neighbors now. They’re all over the place, the sign of a society that has gone to hell. We no longer take care of our fellow citizens who have fallen on hard times. We’re even fighting about whether unemployment benefits should be extended for those who have worked all their lives and been “downsized” thanks to the economic crisis.
And then there are others of us, those of us who still have that job but have suffered pay cuts (in my case 67%) and are barely hanging on. The difference between me and that person on the corner begging is just one late check, or one unexpected medical bill.
The other day I saw a woman on the corner with the usual sign. I barely read it. I fished in my wallet and found all that I had: one dollar. I waved to her and she came running over despite the suffocating triple-digit heat she was standing in. And when I passed her the dollar she burst into tears, thanking me profusely.
I apologized, saying I wish I had more to give her. She said, “No, no, I appreciate this so much! Every bit helps.”
I felt so awful, watching her cry, and wished with all my heart I could do more.
Then she said the thing that pierced my heart, “I call this my walk of shame. Why would anyone think I’d be doing this for anything except my kids?”
Indeed. And in her tears, and in her statement I heard the drivers who had pulled past her in their shiny new gas-guzzlers and shouted, “Get a job!” I’d heard it elsewhere, and I’m sure she must have heard it dozens of times that day.
Get a job. Do you really think she wouldn’t if she was willing to stand out there in the heat and beg? Does anyone honestly believe that standing on a street corner, in danger of heat exhaustion, listening to shouted insults is better than a job? That the few dollars she receives from the handful who drive by and actually give a damn amount to the pride, self-sufficiency and better conditions that a job would provide?
I went home and cried. That she is out there is a condemnation of the society we live in, a condemnation of a country that doesn’t care properly for its own.
Her walk of shame? No, it’s our walk of shame.
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