I’m not sure how many of us have the time anymore to take a deep breath, clear our heads, and reflect, as we once did, on the year behind us. Maybe we don’t have any interest in dwelling on the past, given how painful it was for so many. But it can be a productive exercise.
To be sure, it was dark. We still feel the lingering effects of the Great Recession, as unemployment rates remained stubbornly in excess of 8% going into a fifth year. During those years, we know the middle class lost massive amounts of equity in their homes, meaning a good portion of our wealth evaporated. Sustained high unemployment also means that our value in the labor market has diminished, which will mean many people’s wages will fall further, dropping more of us out of the middle class. Exorbitant inflation in higher education means fewer kids will afford to go to college. Coupled with cuts in financial aid, fewer young people will be properly prepared for the market.
We could talk about the environment, gun violence, pedophiles and the institutions that protected themselves rather than the children, racism, and plenty of other failures of our society in the past year and it gets pretty grim. Our record isn’t very good. And here comes the “fiscal cliff.”
And, yet, there is something about the Lehigh Valley: we stiffen our upper lip, strengthen our collective resolve. We take the hit, we get back up.
Almost everybody could cite a story, an incident, an accident, a fluke that demonstrates, over and over again, that this is a great place. Here are just a few that we witnessed here at Community Action:
Companies, a faith-based group, individuals, a unit of local government raised, almost overnight, $140,000 to assist lower-income homeowners victimized by “Superstorm” Sandy to get their homes repaired.
The Lehigh Valley Association of Realtors stepped up to take responsibility for some unfortunate violations of the Fair Housing Act by many local agents and developed a series of progressive, corrective actions.
As I write this, my e-mail tells me, over and over, that donations are being made through our website to many of Community Action’s programs, especially our Second Harvest Food Bank and Sixth Street Shelter. Plink! Plink! The Lehigh Valley is so generous that I think we can boldly say that nobody is going hungry due to lack of food assistance in the food bank network. Support for the Sixth Street Shelter is so strong that we will be starting the construction of an expansion project that will enable us to serve 25% more families each year. A day never passes when some random act of kindness does not surprise us.
But there is so much more: the Neighborhood Improvement Zone in the city where I live is stimulating $500 million in new real estate development; a minor league hockey team is moving to the region; top business leaders continue to push for progressive policy reforms, calling for regional consolidation of services to minimize costly redundancy among municipalities while revitalizing our cities and boroughs; community service is becoming second nature to a whole generation of young people; and on it goes.
I know: there were many, many egregious violations of the concept of common decency. There were far too many incidents of downright despicable behavior. But there is also a world of good in our little world.
Clearly, there is so much to be done. Some of us aren’t carrying our weight in the save-the-world campaign. Of course, your donation to a favorite cause is a good starting point, and often your volunteer time can be just as valuable. But there are other things you might consider: first, how you spend your money can make a big difference (buy local; better yet, buy urban, and don’t patronize companies that are doing more harm than good). Second, public policy is a key tool (asking an elected official to do the right thing can make a far greater difference than any one thing most of us as individuals can do). Third, engage yourself in the debate; too often, those who protect the status quo are shouting down those of us who have reasoned alternatives to offer (does the NRA come to mind?).
It doesn’t take much to figure out what you can do. Ask someone or a non-profit organization involved in something about which you care. The conversation will do you –and the rest of us – a world of good.