Katrina doesn’t worry about money. She budgets and stays within her means, but decisions about going to a movie, eating at a nice restaurant, where to shop for an office party, and which brand of cereal to buy are all based on her preferences rather than her bank balance. When Katrina’s parents pass away, she will inherit a sizeable amount of money and property from assets earned by her father during his successful legal career and from multiple generations of his relatives who owned coal mills in western Pennsylvania. In addition to this monetary inheritance, Katrina will inherit the valuable social elite status of her mother’s upper class family who have passed along huge fortunes and important community connections through seven generations. Katrina’s family knows all the right people and throughout her life she has benefitted from all the right moves.
Diane’s phone rings as much as 20 times a day and sometimes the only peace she gets from collection agencies comes when she stashes her phone in the dishwasher for an hour. Only a few months ago Diane was a dream customer for lenders. A steady income allowed Diane to manage two mortgages, a car loan, and a few credit cards. To maintain her two-bedroom ranch house, keep up maintenance on her Kia, and treat herself to the handbags and knickknacks that brought her joy, Diane was willing to take on a second job. She knows that luxury items require extra commitment and she worked hard. Overtime? No problem. Holiday time? Sure. Then, last year, back-to-back medical emergencies depleted Diane’s emergency savings and her absence from work cost her the jobs she depended on to make ends meet. Now her home is in foreclosure, her credit profile is in ruins, her car was repossessed, and the phone just keeps ringing.
Katrina and Diane are not from Charlestown, but they could be. If they were…
Where would they live?
How would people talk about them?
Who would be the role model for our children?
Who would be the product of poor life choices?
As Charlestown faces the growth that is projected to come to our area with new development we must pay careful attention to what happens to the Dianes of our community. Why? Because it is the morally right thing to do.
Our community health depends upon the social bonds we maintain.
You see, there is a big difference between wealth and income.
Katrina has both. She benefits from the economic capital of her family fortune, the social capital that makes her career path a little easier, and the intellectual and cultural capital of a quality education and access to good health-care.
Diane’s situation is more tenuous. She had income, but without wealth reserves, one serious life event has set her back in ways from which she might not recover without assistance.
People have a tendency to believe that if others just work hard enough they will be fine. This meritocracy mindset fails to account for economic disadvantage, social inequities, and challenges experienced by people with disabilities or those who are pushed to the margins as they age.
Who hasn’t fallen down and needed a hand up?
So what can we do to help make sure that our Dianes don’t get pushed aside?
First, we can recognize the constraints of working class citizens and stop shaming and blaming them for every hardship they face. Instead of turning to examples of people who represent the worst case scenario, we can see that each person’s story is different and we can begin to listen when people share with us.
After we stop judging, we can develop sympathy for working-class issues. When we see people being pushed around or treated unfairly we have to stop looking the other way and we have to turn toward their distress. But that requires giving up control. We can’t come into challenged neighborhoods with our super hero suits on and tell them how they need to get their acts together. We have to listen. We have to ask questions such as,
“What resources do you need to recover?”
Finally, we have to act. We need to honor one another and support the cause of those in need. Maybe it means a financial contribution, or maybe it means helping clean up garbage in the neighborhood or offering to babysit, or attending a meeting or rally.
It’s easy to think about the personal obstacles we might have overcome and hold ourselves up as model citizens because…well…I found a way out so you can too! The greater challenge is to own up to the ways that society keeps some people on the fringes, then to turn and walk out to them so they’re not out there all alone.
Equality vs. Equity