If you watched Obama's town hall meeting yesterday, you heard some amazing things, and I'm not talking at all about what Obama had to say.
I'm referring strictly to the questions asked by members of the audience, like Henrietta the homeless woman who lives in a car with her son, or Julio the 4-year McDonald's employee and college student who isn't happy with the benefits he gets from that job.
Neither of these two folks are truly representative of the whole of America and Americans, but the world will see them that way, and I'm sickened by it.
Let me get an important point out of the way first. There is nothing funny about homelessness. I'm sure it's heart-breaking for those people, and when I see them walking around or sleeping on sidewalks, I do truly feel very badly for those folks. Unfortunately it's not within my power at the moment to help them beyond the occasional dollar or two when they ask. Maybe some day it will be. Until that time comes, I will continue give regularly to the United Way through our company's fund drives. I also make out-of-pocket donations to several local charities when I'm able.
However, if you're homeless and you just languish in it without attempting to help yourself, what can I do for you? Most of the people I see panhandling here in Pittsburgh are able-bodied individuals. The guy who sits on the jersey barrier at the stoplight at Rt. 28 and Ninth Street looks like he could hoist bricks or unload trucks. He doesn't limp and he has all his limbs. Maybe Henrietta isn't in that boat but there are people out there who do things that don't require a strong back. Jobs like receptionist or secretary come to mind.
As for Julio, I have some sympathy as well. I remember working at McDonald's as a high school kid and just after dropping out of college. In both cases it seemed to me that the dream of owning my own car and having a place of my own to hang my hat were just beyond reach, and maddeningly so. But I told myself over and over that my time at that job was only temporary. I knew in my heart that $3.15/hour (minimum wage plus, in 1989) was good but not great, adequate for now but certainly not a career move. There was more coming down the road to me because I knew I was a smart kid with something to offer the world.
And I was right about that. Flunking out of college was a swift kick to the head: my father kicked me out of the house and I wound up living with a friend and her two kids, and between the four of us, we could barely afford the rent. And if you saw some of the places we lived, you'd think maybe Henrietta had it right (one place had no ceiling in the living room and there was a foot of water in the basement).
When Dad told me to pack my stuff and leave, I was angry at him for it. I was a petulant child with about as much maturity as I now see in my own 3-year-old. But Dad was exactly right, and looking back now I can see that it was absolutely the best thing he could have done for me. If he'd let me stay, he would have been an "enabler", and maybe I'd still be living in his basement at age 37. So Dad, when you said "someday you'll thank me for this", you were exactly right.
After enduring a few years of that, I turned it around. I worked a few more crappy jobs in places that were closer and closer to my chosen career path and eventually landed a job building computers and writing software for a very small company at a measly $20,000 per year. I still had a broken-down Ford Tempo and I shared an apartment with another young guy at work. My situation wasn't kingly, but it was certainly improving: in six years I had more than tripled my yearly salary. And I did it entirely on my own.
The next fourteen years saw stellar improvement and I can tell you that I'm pretty happy with my career to this point. I'm a home owner with a small family and two cars that are paid off.
What's the point of those last few self-congratulatory paragraphs? It's this:
If I can do it, why can't Julio or Henrietta?
The folks who endured the Great Depression and World War II did pretty much the same thing I did with much less than I ever had. I don't feel worthy to cast myself into their group by saying we shared a plight but I can tell you that the America I used to live in was full of people like this. People who understood that they were assets to the world and that the only guaranteed way to achieve anything is to go and get it yourself.
You can trace that quality all the way back to the pioneers and the folks who carved homesteads out of the wilderness here a few hundred years ago. And unfortunately, from what I'm seeing, you can find the end of that thread here in the early days of the 21st century.