My wife and I spent this past Saturday morning volunteering for a college service project where we read stories to elementary school children in downtown Los Angeles. We have done this several times before and it is always a rewarding experience, but this time our interaction felt especially poignant. I guess it’s the ceaselessly unpleasant political dialogue all around us, or maybe hearing one too many times why a tax cut for the wealthy is at the forefront of our national agenda.
The children, all under the age of eight, who listened to us read books to them aren’t a lot different from the children around us every day. They are curious. They know the stories of the Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks, and Cinderella. They laugh when you use funny voices to bring characters to life. They tell you they like to run at recess, play soccer, play video games, and learn about animals. Their eyes are bright. They draw pictures with the sun in the sky and use glue stick to make puffy clouds out of yarn. They are polite and thank you for visiting without being prompted. They are as authentic and hopeful as any children you will meet at this age.
Their teachers tell you how they are different. If you have blond hair they might ask to touch it because they don’t interact much with people who don’t have dark hair and have a hard time understanding why. Although most of them were born in Los Angeles, they have never been to the beach. Most of them never travel farther than a few blocks from where they were born. Many of their parents work two minimum-wage jobs and are gone from early morning to late evening six or seven days a week. Their families may encompass six people living in a one-bedroom apartment. Their closets are built out as bunk beds.
Almost all of them receive lunch provided by the school. Only 10% will graduate from high school. Of those who do, a smaller fraction will attend college, and an even smaller fraction will graduate from college. They are likely to stay in the same neighborhood where they went to elementary school forever.
I’ve been actively involved in our community throughout my adult life, so none of this comes as a surprise. I guess it just hit me hard this weekend that almost no one is talking about this injustice on the national level. Tax cuts aren’t going to help these kids, because their parents don’t make enough money where tax calculations matter. Sustained corporate profits aren’t going to help these kids, because their families are already working as many hours in a day as they can, and still they remain at poverty level.
Not a year ago, the crisis of economic inequality was part of our national dialogue. We acknowledged as a nation that the wider the gap grew between rich and poor, the less stable our economy would become. If we don’t make it a priority to give people a chance to succeed, how can we expect them to enter a shrinking middle class where even the most basic employment opportunities above minimum wage require advanced skills and training? Now instead of addressing the problem, we ignore it completely and let the disease advance out of sight.
That is the path we are on if the idea of leveling the playing field takes second place, third place, or no place in the order of our priorities. I like our capitalist economy. I am a beneficiary of all the good that can come of innovation, investment, hard work, and a little luck. Everyone deserves a chance at the same prosperity. Not a handout, a chance to pursue opportunity.
There is no fairness in a community where 90% of adults will live their lives without a high school diploma. Unless we create tools to break the cycle of poverty and make it a priority to provide economic justice where very little exists, we are on an unnaturally disastrous path to undermining the whole of our nation’s prosperity.
Don’t believe me? Please spend the morning in a neighborhood like we did last weekend. If that doesn’t change your mind, then we’ve already turned the corner on the beginning of the end.
Wake up, America. Our current obsession with tax cuts and rolling back regulations lacks imagination and empathy. Too many of us forgive our President his atrocious behavior because we see a bucket of bucks coming our way if only Congress will get onboard with his program. Where is the talk of growing inequality that threatens to undermine the foundation of our shared prosperity? What do you think happens when the vast majority of a population polarizes and abandons hope? Where is the allocation of resources that proves we are a nation that cares about fairness for all, not just for ourselves?
Programs like Reading to Kids, which organized our event and does so every month for volunteers in Los Angeles, is a great start at bridge building between communities and inspiring human connections. I have written before about the Learning Lab at Hathaway-Sycamores, which helps at-risk teens prepare for college and secure funding where possible. These organizations, while relatively modest in numbers, prove what is possible if we care enough to make those who are otherwise invisible a necessity in our priorities.
For transformative impact to occur at scale, our dialogue must dramatically improve. We need to talk consistently about inequality as an unacceptable condition that hinders our well-being. We need to allocate substantial resources where we know they will make a measurable difference in the lives of others. That’s more important than a tax cut. Way more important.
We need to lead by example. We need to be a kind, caring, helpful, generous people. The neighbors you don’t know matter, both for their well-being and your own. When we turn our backs on those who are trying but struggling, we take away hope. When we take away hope, we aren’t just part of the problem, we are the problem.
Volunteer to meet some kids this weekend who don’t live in your neighborhood. Count the years until they are adults and try to envision what their lives will be. Then decide if we are having the right dialogue about our nation’s future.