As a child, I recall a woman coming to our door one evening collecting money for the poor. I pushed my way in front of my mother who stood in the open doorway. Even at seven years old, the thought of someone not having enough to meet their basic needs was crushing to me. I ran to my room, got my piggy bank and would have handed over my entire savings of $3.00 in mostly dimes, nickels and pennies, had my mother not stopped me. I don’t remember what Mom gave her, but the image of that woman standing there is still very vivid in my mind. That may have been the day I became a “bleeding-heart liberal.”
We were a blue-collar family. My step-father worked for the town’s public works department, and his job supported four of us. Ours was a two-bedroom, one-bath, stucco house in a neighborhood of mostly the same. While we were not wealthy by any means, we had more than some. There was a family in our neighborhood who we gave my school dresses to once I’d outgrown them. They were really the only “poor” family I knew, but even they had a house to live in.
Eisenhower was president, the highest tax rate was 90%, unions were strong, and the country had never been more prosperous. Those folks in the 90% bracket were mostly the stuff of movies to the rest of us, but sometimes my family would pile into our old green Hudson and cruise the rich neighborhood to gaze at all the mansions. Nobody begrudged them their wealth. It gave us something to strive for. It was a society where your birth status took a back seat to your dreams, and those “poor” kids who wore my hand-me-down dresses needed only a willingness to work for those dreams in order to achieve them. I miss that America.
At ten years old, I watched JFK receive the Democratic nomination for president on our small, black-and-white TV. I could barely contain my excitement at the sight of this vibrant, young, inspiring man and his beautiful wife. Proudly wearing a plastic JFK-for-President hat that caused sweat to drip down my forehead and into my eyes, I peddled my blue Schwinn around the block, knocking on doors and handing out campaign literature. For the first time in my life, I felt a part of something bigger than myself. I felt like I could affect change. When President Kennedy said “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country,” it resonated with us because, despite our differences, we were all Americans first.
Today, most of those mansion-filled neighborhoods that I drove through as a child have gates walling them off from the rest of us, and gone from our collective consciousness seems to be the notion that when we all have an equal opportunity to succeed our country succeeds. Given an even playing field, Americans are some of the hardest-working folks on the planet.
Given an even playing field…
It’s not a coincidence that we’re seeing a more violent society as growing numbers of people see the deck irrefutably stacked against them. With the assault that has taken place on the middle class, and the stress so many families are experiencing as they struggle just to survive, I wonder how many of today’s children feel inspired to make a difference, how many still dare to dream. Or are we losing another generation to hopelessness?
As for me, I’m still that seven-year-old who believes everyone should have enough.