Before the holidays take over your life....

My sister Marie was at the bank last week, and the man at the window next to hers was making a balance inquiry. He had a job interview, and wanted to see if there was gas money in his account after he paid his phone bill. He had one job, but needed another to get by.  His calculation was that he needed a dollar or so.  He was dressed for an interview, an African American, living in the Detroit area.  He was not begging or scamming- just trying to get on, trying to get by.  She was paralyzed- she had just turned over her money and was overhearing a private conversation.  She did not wish to humiliate the gentleman.  The line behind her deterred her from making another transaction to withdraw money.  She left, hoping that he had a balance that would carry him to additional employment.  She was haunted, and relived the moment with a menu of "should I have's?" She was so upset that she called me.  She wanted to fix it.

She and her husband work hard, and spend conservatively.  He is a teacher, and takes on any extra income opportunities:  driver's ed, coaching, small engine repair, even the occasional gutter cleaning.  She works in a pediatric office, and rarely says "no" to an extra shift.  They both are accustomed to saying "no" to big spending.  They are saving for retirement, and they calculate the bills and mortgage with that in mind.  They wonder if the cost of living will eventually snip them from their home.  They contest taxes. At the same time, Larry works with St. Vincent DePaul to help families in need.  Marie is always of service, to anyone who asks. In short, they are like all of us. Most days, they do not see desperation, but they know where it lives.  For a brief time, it resided at the counter in Marie's bank.   

 Detroit is a rusty town, desperate for some superglue to fix it.  Larry's school in Hamtramck has turned from blue collar Polish to Black to Middle Eastern.  Hundreds of tribal dialects are spoken.  He teaches small engine repair and a shop class that teaches kids to wallpaper, plumb, paint and maintain a home.  He hasn't had a raise for years, as his district threatens to go bankrupt. He would love to retire, just so that he did not have to worry about his tools disappearing or being used as weapons.  But in Detroit, he is a lucky man.  His job is secure.  All over the socioeconomic spectrum, many are not as fortunate.  

For most of us, poverty is abstract, and hunger is relative.  We can say, "I'm starving" but in fact, we are not even close. We can hate our jobs, but are glad to have one to go to.  We can cut back, edit and discipline our needs.  This year, the astronomical unemployment numbers remind us that many Americans are darning together survival strategies.  One in ten is without work.  People are hungry.  Cold.  Scared.  Losing homes and health.  Misery trickles down to children, the poor and the elderly.  Those without the means to cope are most buffeted by the collapse of the economy.
At this same time, the state of Illinois has gutted its support for outreach programs.  They funded the first half, and provided nothing for the second half.  My elementary school math tells me that they cut funding by 50%.  Local service agencies are scrambling to apply for grants,  arrange fundraisers, or trim service. It is institutional begging, and shame on Illinois for putting these agencies in that position.  Offloading the most desperate in our state is cruel.  The people manning these agencies wish to help.  They want to say, "come in, we can help" and not "we will have to check." It is the season for us to help, in whatever way we are able.
This time of year, we are trained to think of others.  Often, that means the "others" who live with us, or work with us.  In these times, I believe it would be a fine mission to look beyond our selves.  We can help.  We can create communities of support, and these communities will lift us up along with those who are lost.
Most churches have outreach programs to feed the hungry.  Food pantries have seen their shelves stripped.  Every day's mail brings entreaties.  Adopt one organization, or spread your contributions among those you favor.  The Chicago Tribune provides services through its McCormick Charitable Foundation, and they help dozens of needy organizations and hundreds of individuals.  If you are struggling, and money is too precious, think about service.  You can drive someone, knit a blanket, tutor, babysit during a job interview, look in on a senior in the neighborhood, or visit a nursing home with simple gifts. You can rake leaves or shovel snow.  There is great need, and we have great hearts.  To start- just ask if you can help. Ask a person, ask a church. a school, a hospital or an agency.  
 I hate to go all corny, but as Mother Teresa said, "We cannot all do great things, but we can all do small things with great love." Tell your family that you are expanding and reorganizing the gifting circle;  encourage them to share as well.  As Christmas nears, the lights and the love will remain.  They will be brighter and warmer. And you will be just fine without an electronic hamster or a glowing beer mug. I promise.


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  • You made me think on this Janet, and its true, we may not even be considered middle class,but I have a roof over my head and food on the table, a decent job, that I need to stop complaining about and yet I complain, this blog has made me have a reason to stop

  • In reply to lyndag:

    Do not beat yourself up- we mostly complain so those around us will remind us that we are of value! We just have to counterbalance it with gratitude for what we get from life every day- even on bad days.

  • In reply to lyndag:

    I didn't intend to sound so angry. I also do agree that many who are wealthy do more than their " fair" share. What I rail against is greed in general. Don't take advantage of social government programs simply because they exist. I am not screaming for anything except perhaps an end to lifelong politicians. How about more people in government with less experience and motivation to manipulate the system. And how about looking at the long term ramifications of passing laws that seem to fix a problem today only to cause more serious problems later. Angry, maybe. But not at you. I know the contributions you and your husband make both financially and sociatally and I applaud you for also having this forum available. I have been accused of being naive and idealistic in my views on greed. So be it. I just wish others would consider that a more reasonable lifestyle has bigger benefits than always buying bigger and newer things.
    Thanks again and sorry for raining on the Christmas parade.

  • In reply to GregZnajda:

    And I did not mean to sound so reactionary. I totally get what you mean about social programs, already strapped, servicing people who can pay out of pocket. For example- wealthy seniors getting free CTA passes. And you are right- the solution is political. I am a Village trustee- and I can have only one term. I do not have to appease anyone, or compromise- because I cannot run for re-election. The Village loses my wisdom at the 4 year mark, but we are loaded with wise people who will learn quickly. Politicians are often worried about the wrong bottom line- reelection- rather than what they are elected to do.

    The long term effects of legislation- like regarding pensions and entitlements- is choking Illinois. This area needs work. But for this month- I intend to do one good thing a day. Today I will drop a bag of food at the church. All told- my little things will make a difference. I hope.

  • In reply to GregZnajda:

    Amen!!! Have a great time on Hawaii!!

  • Janet, You are a wonderful human being and have a very big heart! I wish the world had more people like you. Cause it would be a lot better place to live in. I love your Blogs they are very uplifting.

  • Amen, Janet! I swear I am the worst about complaining about the things going on in my life, but they are NOTHING compared to what a lot of people are going through these days! I have always felt it important to donate to good causes, restock the shelves at the food pantry at my church, etc. But this year, I vow to do it with more conscious thought to what the people on the receiving end are going through and with more thanks that, there but for the grace of God, go I. Thanks for always making us think! Now I'm off to get a sweater, blanket, and pair of 'house shoes' for a 79 year old whose tag I got off a giving tree at Walgreens. 'Be a Santa to a Senior' is the name of this particular program!

  • In reply to cinderella53161:

    I am going to check my Walgreen's- that sounds like a great opportunity. Thank you for writing.

  • I am insensed as well at the cutting of funds by the state to social service agencies. I, however, am more angered by the wealthy of Hinsdale, Highland Park and elsewhere who continually vote for "corrupt" candidates or for those who promise not to raise " their" taxes. A 50 percent tax bracket for the wealthy would sure help things! Let's face it greed is what got the economy where it is and until the greedy change or are restricted the poor and middle class will be strapped to take care of each other. Easter Seals Dupage in Villa Park has been struggling for donors to fund services for the poor because State Funds are available to ALL not just the poor. Yes, that's right, there are wealthy people who use state funds for their "special needs" kids who are fully capable of footing the bill out of pocket. This "entitlment phenomenon" is much worse and insidious then the more commonly thought of entitlement " problem." Its nice to do small things for others, all you 6 figure income "earners" should loosen up the purse strings. Live for a year at the level of "regular person" and donate the rest. Maybe the new furniture paint and wallpaper changes in your million dollar homes won't seem so necessary. Merry fricken Christmas!!!

  • In reply to GregZnajda:

    I am going to say that you are very angry, and I understand your frustration. Directing it to the rich is a little too easy, though, isn't it? There is greed all across the spectrum that punctured the economy. Many unqualified buyers bought homes with no ability to sustain their obligation. People continued to use credit cards with no ability to make significant payments. Across all demographics, Americans contributed to the morass. Now we will all suffer as we attempt to right things. Let's hope we learned a thing or two.

    It is all well and good to scream for a 50% tax rate for high earners. Taxes were created to support government, which admittedly has grown in an out of control way. Taxes were not intended to be a re-distribution of wealth. That would be socialism. I have to remind you that the top 1% of earners in the US paid 40% of all taxes collected in the last 2 years. The top 20% are responsible for paying 86.3 percent of all income taxes collected. I am sure that many of these citizens are certain that they pay their share. They will certainly be paying more in the future. On the opposite side, I studied tax codes when I was in law school, and it is a labyrinth. Capital gains laws, deferred compensation, and bizarre rules allow warped application. I think all of us would like a clearer guide-except tax attorneys, financial planners and accountants.

    I think it is kind of funny that you rage against entitlement, but believe you are entitled to avail yourself of wealthy people's money via taxes. ( and mind you, the definition of "wealth" for tax code purposes is around 125,000) The top 5% pays more taxes than 1-95% pays when combined. There is no simple answer for reforming taxes. Rage is not a good public servant. What we need is much harder -analysis and reform.

    My point was simply that we all need to share. I am pretty sure that most people of means contribute generously to charity in their communities. We all should be there to lift up someone who is struggling. I stand by my point, and hope you DO have a good holiday. Enjoy what you have.

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