You learn a lot when you spend an evening helping serve meals to people who don’t take meals for granted.
You learn that poverty doesn’t keep people from dressing well, holding their heads high and teaching their children table manners.
You learn that people can sometimes feel so humiliated by their circumstances that they won’t make eye contact.
And you learn that for people whose lives offer very few choices, the opportunity to select a specific piece of pie off a dessert tray is enormously significant. Pickiness is not always a product of pampering.
I learned all those things and more on a cold night a few days before Thanksgiving. I also learned that cold nights a few days before Thanksgiving are when people like me become volunteerism statistics. That’s when we venture out of our cozy suburban habitats and show up at places like Independence Boulevard Christian Church in Kansas City’s Northeast area, where hundreds of meals are served every Monday night to anyone who shows up, no questions asked.
Then January rolls around, and we have other things to do. There are work deadlines and school projects and New Year’s resolutions to attend to. We suburbanites love our New Year’s resolutions, because we are all about self-improvement. Especially weight loss, since we are not so picky about our pie.
Winter turns to spring, and still we are busy. Schools fill our calendars with end-of-the-year activities, then suddenly it’s summer, time for vacation and for carting the kids to all their camps.
Meanwhile, on Monday nights the hungry still line up along that street most of us associate only with bad stories on the evening news. For many of them, the only difference between winter and summer is the difference between shivering and sweltering.
You hear a lot about the “wealth gap” these days. When you spend an evening with hundreds of people who can’t afford healthy food or basic medical care, then read wealth-management articles the next day bemoaning the 3.8 percent Medicare surtax on net investment income for married couples earning more than $250,000 annually, it’s easy to see why this gap generates so much attention.
But the problem in America isn’t the wealth gap. It’s the opportunity gap. Because no matter how much we pretend otherwise, hard work is no longer the best predictor of financial success.
Yes, many older Americans achieved wealth through decades of hard work, having started with nothing but painful childhood memories of the Depression.
But take a look at wealthy young Americans, and the situation changes. Many are from families who built financial security through the booming decades of mid- and late 20th-century America. Those families wanted the best for their children — don’t we all? — and didn’t think twice about paying every penny of their kids’ college educations, using their own business networks to set up their sons and daughters in promising corporate jobs, and helping out newlyweds with the gift of a house.
Billionaire investor Warren Buffett took a swipe at the culture of dynastic wealth a few years ago when he said, “I love it when I’m around the country club, and I hear people talking about the debilitating effects of a welfare society. At the same time, they leave their kids a lifetime and beyond of food stamps. Instead of having a welfare officer, they have a trust officer. And instead of food stamps, they have stocks and bonds.”
A swipe at the upper crust, yes. Still, does anyone doubt that the children and grandchildren of Warren Buffett will always have a soft landing?
If the wealth gap were simply the result of poor people being lazy and wealthy people working hard, no one would care. But the truth is that the poor are among the hardest-working people around. They hold jobs the rest of us would do anything to avoid — sometimes two or three of them at once, if they can find someone to watch the kids.
It’s safe to say most of those kids won’t grow up with a sense of possibility. They won’t be spending their high school years researching colleges or their young adult years “exploring options” or “finding a niche” (which are other things we suburbanites love).
So while the rich search for tax loopholes and the poor search for hope, the disconnect between work and wealth grows.
We’ve all seen pie charts showing the dramatically uneven distribution of wealth in America. But those charts don’t tell the story the way real pie does, when simply getting to choose your very own slice is a gift.