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Privileges Bestowed, Not Earned

March 19, 2000|SANDY BANKS

My daughter is not pleased with her shirt.

It is not the spun-silk, name-brand variety worn by many of her high school classmates, but a serviceable, cotton-polyester blend that will hold up under machine washing . . . and cost about one-third as much to boot.

"It looks fine," I assure her. "A white shirt is a white shirt, and this one is just as nice as any other."

Now, our wardrobe discussions are generally amicable. She is admirably levelheaded, this child of mine. Not hung up on status symbols, just concerned--in typical ninth-grade fashion--with looking her best, fitting in.

But on this day, I am impatient, snappish. "Will you stop worrying about how the shirt looks? Just be grateful you have a clean, new shirt to wear to school. Not everybody does, you know."

And I realize this is not about the shirt at all; it is not my daughter's appearance that is on my mind. I cannot stop thinking of the children I wrote about last Sunday, kids so poor, so neglected, they are often forced to skip school because they have nothing to wear.

And I find myself appealing to my daughter with the same sort of twisted logic my mother--and probably yours--used to employ when we dawdled at the dinner table:

"Eat your meatloaf, honey. There are children in Africa starving."


It was bewildering then, this illogical connection between the meatloaf on my dinner plate and a bush child forced to survive on berries. If I didn't eat this, could we ship it to hungry children instead?

I realize, looking back, that my mother was not just trying to discourage waste, but to sensitize us to our place of privilege in the world, our relative good fortune in having enough to eat . . . even if it was meatloaf and not filet mignon.

And I realize now how difficult that can be . . . that the spirit of charity is not one our children take to naturally, especially when they are confronted at every turn by the fruits of our affluent society.

"It's hard even to get them to realize how bad some kids have it," says my friend Dana. She took away her two daughters' books, CDs and video games for a week, "not as punishment, but because I wanted them to experience doing without things that really are luxuries . . . to understand that the way we live is not the way everyone lives."

Indeed, stunning wealth and abject poverty are just a few freeway exits apart in this great metropolis, where the gap between the rich and poor is among the widest in the nation, and growing faster than at any time in our history.

Our city has one of the country's highest poverty rates--almost one in five families lives in poverty. And despite a booming economy that is creating waves of new millionaires each week, the rising tide has not lifted all boats--it has swamped the leaky vessels of the working poor.

Their earning power has declined, and they are locked out of the housing market (only one-third of California residents can now afford to buy a home). In minimum-wage jobs that pay less than $12,000 a year, they are too poor to afford medical care for their families or even school clothes for their kids.

So while a school in West L.A. feels compelled to ban the trendy $200 handbags so popular among its middle-school students, to protect them from rampant materialism, another school not 20 miles away resorts to begging a washer and dryer from a local church group so its students can launder the few school clothes they own and not have to sit in class embarrassed because they smell.


"I work as a janitor at a private school," said an e-mail from a reader after last Sunday's column. "The kids are rich and leave expensive clothes, book bags and lunch bags all over the place. I wish they could meet the kids from your story, because then maybe they would appreciate what they have."

Or maybe not. Maybe most of us, because it is human nature, take for granted what we have, and avert our eyes at the sight of the less fortunate because we feel guilty or helpless or "there but for the grace of God go we."

"One of the biggest things I have to battle when I take my students to do community service is the sense that these [other] kids are somehow poor because their families don't work hard enough or they're not smart enough . . . and conversely, we are rich because we deserve it," says an administrator at a private school, where a year's tuition is higher than the entire annual income of many of the families they meet on service projects.

"There's a sense of entitlement, rather than beneficence, that we struggle against," he said.

"The point is not to make people feel bad about having so much, but good about sharing it with others."

Sandy Banks' column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is

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