When I was growing up, there were "panhandlers." They were men, almost always men, and they approached men, almost always men, and asked for money for a cup of coffee, or a bus ride, or whatever they thought would work best. I clearly remember my shock in the early 60s the first time I saw someone sitting on the sidewalk with a cup next to them; outside the original Nordstrom's in Seattle, as luck would have it. I was appalled, and said "That's what they do in India, beg on the sidewalk. Not what we do here." (Well, I was young and rather remarkably opinionated without much depth to back it up.) It was, of course, a straw in the wind, and now there are beggars everywhere and we hardly notice.
Today, for the first time in my life, a man rang my doorbell and asked if he could do any work in the yard in exchange for a meal. I was as shocked as I was that long ago day outside Nordstrom's. I live in a quaint little town, with "street people" but no obvious rub-your-nose-in-it poverty. But this was a man who said he hadn't eaten in a couple of days, and he was hungry and could he rake leaves for something to eat?
He had a regular job in the summer, had for two years, and last winter he'd worked for a tree guy cleaning up downed trees and limbs, but the tree guy's son had come back from Iraq so there was no work for him there. He'd gone every day to the day labor office, but lots of men and not many jobs. He knew the Lighthouse Mission offered free food, but he felt better doing something for his food. So he was going house to house, but people were scared -- "well, understandable, these times...." -- or they said they'd like to help but didn't have enough for themselves.
So I did what I'd always promised myself I'd do if someone came to the door and asked me for food: I gave him a meal, and then asked him to rake some leaves and do some other work in the yard. He worked very hard for an hour and a half; I had a $20, and told him he'd earned it, and I was glad to be able to share food with him. He said thanks, and walked off.
I read economists, and commentators of all stripes: Wall Street, Main Street, yadda yadda yadda, bailout, liquidity, not really so bad just needs a quick fix, yadda yadda yadda. And I wonder if I've just seen a straw in the wind.