“Recently I was talking with an old man who has been living on the streets for the last four years. Nobody ever looks at him. No one ever talks to him. Maybe somebody gives him a little money, but nobody ever looks in his face and asks him how he’s doing. The feeling that he doesn’t exist for other people, the sense of loneliness and isolation, is intense.” This is quite a reflective passage, shared by the renowned meditation master Pema Chödrön from her book “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.”
What I find truly revelatory about this text is how easily so many of us in this country could fall into such dire straits, and just how quickly it could happen. That all it might take is one or two medical expenses not covered by your insurance plan (the most common reason), or an act of nature like an unexpected flood, causing extensive damage to your home.
In a recent piece written by Quentin Fottrell for the website MarketWatch, figures from the personal finance site Bankrate show that just 39 percent of Americans say they have enough savings to cover a $1,000 emergency room visit or car repair. A report last year by the U.S. Federal Reserve surveyed nearly 7,000 adults and came up with a similar figure. It’s a hardship that was once relegated to those at the lowest end of the financial ladder, but in recent years, the trend has clearly moved upward.
We only have to look back a decade or so to find the origins of this most recent financial collapse. The distance in incomes between the well-off and a large majority of the U.S. population has become incredibly vast; with the number of households teetering precipitously close to this potentially life-altering reality remaining astoundingly high for such an advanced republic as ours.
As numerous state and local elections are about to be held, it’s with a grain of salt that one should accept our nation’s currently-reported overall unemployment figure for face value without digging deeper. Undoubtedly, many politicians will be taking credit for the sub-4 percent figure; painting a much rosier picture than actually exists. What’s not being discussed is the all-too-common experience of the middle-aged man or woman who was once earning a yearly salary of $50,000+ with full benefits, who has since been laid off, and now struggles to maintain one or two $10 per hour (often service-related) jobs, with minimal or no medical benefits to speak of.
What’s less discernible is the social-emotional impact that such a dramatic financial turnaround has, not only on the individuals themselves, but on society as a whole. A marginalization begins to evolve, pushing those who, not long ago, might have readily participated in typical “middle class” behavior, who then get pushed towards the outer edges both directly and indirectly. Subsequently, they come to feel as if their voice and opinions are no longer of value to the greater whole; assuming an identity of second class, or often-times, as invisible citizens.
Clearly, there is a faction of those in power and a portion of our electorate who feel that it’s the responsibility of each individual to maintain his or her own well-being with minimal or no assistance from the government. Personally, I don’t fall into this category, as I feel that we all belong to the same tribe and when one of us hurts, we all do.
As members of a community, we can be proactive by taking some responsibility in addressing this marginalization before it begins. Seeking out and assisting veterans, the elderly, immigrants, those suffering from physical and cognitive disabilities; the list is endless in terms of at-risk populations among us. By building a system in which the needs of our neighbor becomes the needs of our own; we widen the circle of inclusion and create the foundation for a vibrant community among all of its members, not just for those at the top.