"Parents do cry," I heard my older son telling his little brother the other day.
"They do?" The littler one looked skeptical.
"Mom cried when we saw a guy asleep outside."
A brief silence followed in which two little boys pondered the disturbing thought of grown-ups in tears.
For the record, I do not cry every time I see a homeless person. I'd be extremely dehydrated if I did. The reason I cried was the conversation my son and I had about this particular homeless man, who was sacked out on a bench along our route to the camp bus-stop. Sam wanted to know why he was sleeping outside, and when I explained that he didn't have anywhere else to go, he asked why we didn't just invite him to our house. That was what made me cry.
What got me was his simple, straightforward sense that it was wrong for someone to be without privacy and protection from the bugs and heat and noise when his own cozy bedroom, with a fan and ample room for a sleeping bag, was just steps away. With his unadulterated (pun intended) sense of right and wrong, he saw that we could solve the problem and thus concluded that we should. D'oh!
It's more complicated than that, of course. There are liability laws, safety concerns, and our own privacy to think about. Plus, as I tried to explain, our offering a single person a place to sleep won't solve the larger problems of homelessness or inequality. But Sam wasn't buying any of that. At just six-years-old, he can't understand the practical challenges and limitations of inviting random strangers into your home.
Still, if he's fuzzy on the practicalities, his impulse to help is right--as is his sense that there is something very wrong with a world in which one person can spend his day happily munching granola bars and playing tether-ball while another struggles to survive. Kids instinctively know such unfairness is intolerable.
Having lived in New York City my entire adult life, I have a pretty thick buffer against human desperation. Yet, lately the pure, fresh sting of wrongness has pierced my protective armor. Some of my increased sensitivity--the tears, at least-- can be explained by watching my child try to make sense of the world, and seeing his simple desire to make things right.
But another part of it is that the whole matter of the haves and have-nots is getting worse. I've long felt that there is both more zany wealth--and desperate poverty--than when I was a kid, but it's been hard to put my finger on how much of this is just my own impression. This is why, perhaps, I found myself staring at an image on David Leonhardt's blog the other night.
For those who feel like looking at a graph of income inequality (and I totally understand if you don't), I'm talking about the second image down, which shows a series of increasingly large and angry-looking upside-down Vs. Turns out that census numbers confirm--and precisely calibrate--my sense that there's a growing gap between the richest of the rich and everyone else. In the last 15 years, the income of the top .01 percent has gone haywire, almost quadrupling.
Meanwhile, earnings of the middle and bottom fifths of the country have barely budged, making for a huge and widening gap. In 2007, the after-tax income of the top 1 percent were 75 times greater than the bottom fifth of households, compared to 1980, when they were only 8 times greater.
If there were any lingering questions before this weekend about which candidate would close that gap – or at least get it moving in the other direction – there are none now that Romney has chosen Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate.
Ryan, the architect of the Republican budget in the House, has proposed a $4.3 trillion dollar tax cut to the wealthiest, while eliminating tax deductions for things like mortgage interest and health premiums that would benefit the middle class. He's also planned to cut spending on children, education, the elderly, and the disabled.
Scarily for me and anyone else who has a parent or in-law near retirement age, Ryan has also vowed to turn Medicare into a voucher program, a move that could increase elderly people's health costs by thousands of dollars.
A Romney-Ryan ticket would make our country even more starkly divided than it already is. And, for Sam--and this mother, who would like to remain hydrated and composed all the way to the bus-stop--that's a very bad thing.