Recently I received a thank-you letter from the Regional Food bank of Northeastern New York for what was a quite modest donation. They also included some numbers: in 2012 they managed to distribute 27.7 million pounds of food throughout our region, enough to make up 23 million meals. This is an increase of 2 million pounds over 2011 and a 40 percent increase in need since 2007.
Through donations from local corporations, supermarkets and local restaurants, as well as with the help of an army of volunteers and private contributions, this agency does one heroic and most regrettably necessary job.
Without this food, there would be no reason for the queue at the Hilltown Resource Center, to name our local center, to obtain four days of food a month, of necessity recently reduced from five, that is distributed.
I’m aware that recently our Legislature did see the necessity of raising the minimum wage in New York state to somewhat near a realistic number — however slowly and grudgingly it does rise. But even at $10 an hour, supposing a full 40 hours a week of work and four weeks a month, working 12 months with no vacations, this totals $20,800 a year — slightly below the federal poverty level for a family of four.
These numbers are grim, with small light at the end of the tunnel for parents to feed, clothe and shelter themselves and their young: to not even reach the federal poverty level while working full time as hard as they can. Of course, one could work an extra part-time job. But my question is why? Why must some labor in quiet poverty, never expecting relief except if in their wildest dreams they may hit the big jackpot in the Lottery or break the bank at the Turning Stone Casino?
Why is this necessary in a country marketing $200,000 and $300,000 family homes, and cars for $20,000, $30,000 — even $60,000 and $80,000 cars? Or Chanel stilettos for $1,000; iPhones for $500; baubles for mom on Mother’s Day beginning in the thousands and continuing upward? There is a serious disconnect in our culture between the haves and have-nots, or as George Bush once said to a roomful of extremely wealthy contributors, the haves and the have-mores.
We congratulate ourselves to have done so well by the poor — 27.7 millions pounds of donated food distributed among the needy, an increase of 2 million over last year, handed out to the deserving and undeserving in our region alone. Of course, it is natural to see those unable to find means of a basic survival in our material and competitive culture as undeserving, lazy losers most likely addicted to drugs or alcohol and probably both.
Those obligatory films from the local TV station of the ragged men in their motley cast-off clothes hunkered over their food at the local soup kitchen on any given holiday most often spring to mind.
But look again in the corners and notice the children, mothers too, fathers possibly, all dressed in their best, glancing uneasily at the camera intruding into their meager celebration reassuring us haves as we digest our extra-heavy meal.
LESSONS OF HISTORY
Charity is rarely necessary when all have a chance: at a proper education; at crime-free, clean, attractive housing; at a decent wage; at fair payment for a fair day’s work. It has been said, over and over down through the centuries. And yet history is punctuated by periods of excess wealth of a few, drawn from the sweat of the many, until there is yet another upheaval wherein the many have had enough. I do not predict revolution; however, there is a fine point at which the many have not much left to lose. Before that point, one would hope conscience would prevail.
It is wrong to enjoy so very much when others have so very little. It is dangerous too, for in these days of instant mass communication, hungry eyes are watching each mouthful, each gulp, each bounty, each joy. Distribute more food? Donate more clothes? Hand out more turkeys at Thanksgiving? Include all, with whatever it takes — better schools, higher wages, less profit for the capitalists, call it socialism if you must. But level the fi eld so that everyone at least has a chance while laboring for a better living.
Barbara DeMille lives in Rensselaerville. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.