I was a subway commuter from my suburban home to downtown Baltimore for over 5 years. During that span I was assaulted twice by groups of teenagers. I got the better of them on the first time and they got the better of me on the second. Both times I was a little rattled, quite angry, but not really scared. I never considered driving because of the price of parking.
After leaving that position I moved to a small town in a rural part of Western Maryland. I joined a book club at the local library where group members would read the same book and then get together in a small meeting room at the library to discuss it. This, of all places, is where I got really scared by a little 70’ish year old lady in sneakers.
There, 20 or so of us gathered in ceramic chairs formed into a circle facing a drawing board where the group leader could capture important points and recurring themes. I realized, as the room filled, that I, at 57 years, would be the youngest in the group. The chair to my left was claimed by the old lady I mentioned before. We smiled, said hello, and waited for the group to start. Everyone in the room appeared pleasant and gentle. There was a palpable sense of stability and good will.
The book we were discussing was Mathew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Desmond, a Harvard Sociologist, actually moved to the poverty-stricken north side of Milwaukee for his research. Instead of arguing for a particular point, Desmond simply reveals the real life struggles of individuals and families focusing on tenant/landlord issues, especially as they relate to eviction. Many of those followed were struggling to pay $500 to $600 rent out of their $650 to $750 monthly incomes.
He did a good job of articulating how bad choices led to bad results but also revealed the incredible burden many suffer as they are always a step or two away from eviction. In the midst of this suffering he revealed the wealth of many landlords who routinely forgo essential maintenance as a trade off against those who may be slightly behind in payments.
During the discussion there was a general consensus the poor were certainly in a pickle and that something should be done. I mostly kept quiet but gently introduced the idea that some of this was simply a result of making bad choices – like using crack instead of starting a savings account. Towards the end of the discussion the woman next to me spoke. She basically said that this was all quite simple; Federal housing assistance simply must be dramatically raised. I responded that our nation is beyond broke, that we are $22 trillion in debt not counting $60-80 trillion of unfunded liabilities. I said that we are currently at the point that if borrowing rates rise too much we will be unable to service even the interest on our debt.
Her response was what scared me. She said “well, I’m sure that they won’t let THAT happen”. She had an honest, child-like belief that our overseers in D.C. were fully trustworthy to prevent anything really bad from ever happening. It dawned in horror on me that she was unaware of so many financial truths, of financial history and the dire seriousness of our country’s debt addiction. It was truly a “well if they have no bread, let them eat cake” moment. All I could do was to look at her in disbelief but how could I convey to her that we simply don’t have any extra spending capacity? I applauded her compassion; how could I not. As I drove home I realized that she had really scared me though. The fear came from 3 factors. First, she honestly completely believed in the benevolence, foresight and protective nature of the folks inside the beltway. Second she probably represents nearly half of the nation. Third she was packing a voter registration card and knew how to use it.