I woke up this morning, turned on the Internet, and came across a New York Times OpEd piece titled "Is It Bad Enough?" Written by food writer, author, and columnist Mark Bittman, the piece focuses on the current state or our country and the spontaneous protests that have been going on nationwide.
The root of the anger is inequality, about which statistics are mind-boggling: From 2009 to 2012 (that's the most recent data), some 95 percent of new income has gone to the top 1 percent; the Walton family (owners of Walmart) have as much wealth as the bottom 42 percent of the country's people combined.
Those numbers were shocking to me. How can one family have more money than so many others? I'm all for the American Dream, but looking at those stats can certainly make one realize why the non-rich may feel at least a little bit slighted.
Earlier in the week, I read another eye-opening article about being a "have-not" in the United States. This one was on the Slate.com website. Titled "Why People Stay Poor," it's actually an excerpt from Linda Tirado's book called Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America.
It is impossible to be good with money when you don't have any. . . .When I have a few extra dollars to spend, I can't afford to think about next month--my present day situation is generally too tight to allow me that luxury. I've got kids who are interested in their quality of life right now, not 10 years from now.
Tirado talks about how she once lost a truck that was towed because she couldn't afford to get it out of impound, and about how "It's impossible to win, unless you are very lucky. For you to start to do better, something has to go right--and stay that way for long enough for you to get on your feet."
Reading those pieces from Torado and Bittman made me feel extremely fortunate. Which is strange, because just the day before I had posted this as my status update on Facebook:
"I kind of thought this to be the case, but I can now confirm based on experience: paying bills is way easier when you have an income!"
Looking back at that status update made me feel like a fool.
Yes, it's true that I have been unemployed for a year now. I've been doing some freelance work here and there, but I don't have a steady income by any means. That said, my wife works. And although her income is modest, we do have some money in the bank. The bottom line: We are far from being poor and are likely way better off than a very large number of Americans.
After I read the Bittman piece, I read part of it aloud to my wife. She, too, was astonished by the statistics it quoted. Then she looked at me and said, "We should go to Kmart and pay off some people's layaways."
Paying off a complete stranger's layaway account is something my wife and I first did three years ago. Knowing that someone's holiday hinged on their coming up with enough money to free Christmas wish list items from a back room at their local Kmart was unsettling to us. So we went to Kmart, explained what we wanted to do, and went "shopping" in the layaway room for bundles of gifts we wanted to secretly pay for. We were "layaway angels" to three families that year.
Today, we did the same. Granted, things are way different for us this year. Three years ago, we were both working and things were pretty damn good. Today, only one of us is working. In fact, I applied for unemployment yesterday. But we are still blessed and do not want for much. Spending some money to brighten the Christmas of three less fortunate families just seemed like the right thing to do.
There was another article that caught my eye the other day. It was a story in USA TODAY about a layaway angel who spent $20,000.00 to pay off every single layaway account--all 150 of them--at a Toys R Us store in Bellingham, Massachusetts.
My wife and I only spent one-tenth that much today, but the end result was the same: We made a difference in some people's lives this Christmas. Our hope is that the beneficiaries will realize that there are indeed still people in the world who care about others. Maybe someday they will remember what someone did for them and be inspired to pay it forward.
"No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another." --Charles Dickens