I awoke this morning at two a.m. to the sounds of a car idling in front of our house. When I peeked through the window, I saw a young woman transferring newspapers from the back to the front to make it easier to toss them as she moved down the street.
I’ve done that job. Throwing newspapers was one of the first jobs I had as a young person. Wake up at midnight, collect bundles of papers, roll them (in those days with rubber bands), stuff them into a bag, climb aboard an overloaded bicycle and head into the darkness to deliver them. By four a.m., I would stop at the Beltz bakery for fresh doughnuts, still hot and dripping with icing. Then, I’d go home and get ready for school.
Things have changed since then. Throwing newspapers is an adult job now. It will eventually become a job of the past. I said a prayer for this young woman. My guess is, this is a way to get by. You don’t aspire to work like this. Today, it’s probably one of two, or three, similar jobs you do to stay afloat.
The papers she dropped at our house contained three inches of circulars advertising Black Friday sales. The front page photo showed people camped out at a big box retailer waiting for the opening of a sale to purchase flat screen TVs for $200.
The accompanying article discussed the difference in buying practices of the wealthy and those who are camping out on the sidewalks for the bargains. The wealthy will pay full price and shop in a more leisurely manner during normal store hours, the article says.
The lead editorial in the N.Y. Times reminded us that one in three persons in the United States lives in or near poverty. That’s 100 million people. It discusses the claim of some economists that the goods that even the near poor in the U.S. can afford–a cell phone, refrigerator, coffee maker and other stuff—make it difficult to build a case for true hardship. The editorial counters, saying these are requisites today, not luxuries. A more practical measure is the ability to afford education, health care, child care, housing and utilities. These determine quality of life, and by this measure we’ve made progress. Government programs are helping many, but the numbers of the economically vulnerable continue to creep upward.
It also makes the case that we live in neighborhoods defined by our respective economic clout. And the result, says a Stanford economist, is an isolation that threatens our concept of the common good. The poor and the affluent experience different realities. The prosperous who don’t live with the daily challenge of surviving paycheck to paycheck as the near poor, or hand to mouth as those in poverty; are less likely to support public schools, parks, mass transit and other investments that benefit the broader society.
The first words my wife spoke to me this morning after wishing me happy Thanksgiving were, “I don’t like this time of year because it’s so hard on the children.” She works in an urban school district with kids from low income families. She says the expectations created by hyped up advertising are so great and the disappointment so deep, it hurts.
The ads promote desire, and hold out the false promise that happiness rests in owning this or that gadget. But reality for these kids is different. They are among the 17 million who, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, face bigger problems like hunger, overcrowded living conditions, parents who can’t pay the rent or mortgage and can’t afford health care.
As we talked, I got an email note from a poverty-fighting friend. Likely, he was writing from one of his usual haunts overseas, a village where poverty is bald-faced and crystal clear. He gave thanks for our friendship, a job, a warm bed and shelter over his head, things, he notes, that billions the world over don’t have. I thought of Jesus’ followers who ask in Matthew 25, “Lord, when did we see you?” And his reply, “When you did unto the least of these, you did it to me.”
The struggle to survive occurs in the early morning darkness as a young woman tosses newspapers, doing a job no one would relish, but one that helps her to get by. It occurs in the dry plains of Somalia, in ravaged Darfur, teeming city slums, townships, favelas and forgotten rural villages the world over. Unseen.
Reading the paper this Thanksgiving morning was like reading the Bible.