As I wrote in a previous post, last weekend we visited our friend Diane, and one of the things we talked about was her work at her town’s local food pantry. On Monday, I got an email from her telling me that because of the bad weather, only ten families came to the pantry. A normal Monday count is fifty families. Ten families out in bad weather to get food. Fifty families when the weather is good. And Diane lives in an affluent community that is not known for the number of people who need food assistance.
By a strange coincidence—it’s funny how often this happens—there was an editorial in last week’s Sunday Kennebec Journal about the greater Portland area and General Assistance. (Diane does not live in Portland.) The gist of the piece was that Portland’s General Assistance is not excessively generous and is, in fact, greatly needed. “Demand for General Assistance spiked in 2009, the first year of the worst recession in 80 years. The budget has climbed each year since then as the benefits of the recovery have been disproportionately distributed to the people at the high end of the income scale. That’s why in Portland you can see lines outside trendy restaurants and at the soup kitchen a few blocks away.”
That last sentence really caught my attention—the notion of two lines of people, one group waiting to get into a trendy and almost certainly expensive restaurant while another group waits in line for the soup kitchen. What kind of city, what kind of state, what kind of country do we have where there are two lines so far apart?
People, of course, are entitled to spend their money any way they want, but is it decent to flock to a trendy restaurant, where the meals are usually $25 or even higher, while so many people wait in the soup kitchen line? Before the Great Recession, I’m not sure if I would have asked this question. I am a foodie, and I love the idea of a vibrant food scene with good chefs and good restaurants. A happy day for me is going to an outdoor food fair—when the weather is good—and nibbling on food here and there. When times were better, Clif and I would occasionally go to a restaurant where the meals were expensive.
But the Great Recession has clarified a lot of things, one of them being the terrible inequality in this country. People are twisting themselves inside out to have a safe, comfortable place to live, enough fuel to stay warm, enough food to eat, education for their children, and in too many cases, health care. (Diane spoke of how some of the people who come to the food pantry have lost all their assets, including their homes, because of illness and lack of health insurance.)
It is human, I know, to be concerned with the circle of people closest to you. It is easy to forget that there are other less fortunate circles. It is easy to look away, to justify, to want to splurge. But again I ask the question: Is it decent?