Whatsoever you do to the least among you…

She was hunkered in the weeds at the intersection of I189 and Route 7 with a cardboard sign that read “traveling, broke, hungry”. A light rain had begun to fall on her and the cars that were queued up beside her at the red light. She looked pretty ratty and wore the tanned face of someone who was always outside; whatever possessions she owned were in a well-worn knapsack. I reached in my wallet and pulled out a $5 bill, rolled down my window, and handed it to her, saying “Take care of yourself.” She smiled, met my eyes and said, “Thank you very much.” She couldn’t have been more than 20 years old.

Now I’ve been at that intersection numerous times when other needy people have been holding up signs, yet I’ve managed to drive by without handing them any money, muttering, “Don’t these people know about United Way agencies and their programs that provide food, clothing and shelter? Geez, Louise!” But in this young woman’s sweet yet dirty face I saw every mother’s child, and she made me cry. But for a simple twist of fate, she could be my son or your daughter. But for another economic downturn, it could be your neighbor’s entire family figuratively standing at that intersection.

Very, very hard spending choices are going to be made by low-, working-, and middle -class families this fall and winter. In addition to gasoline prices, many other necessities have risen dramatically and are projected to increase further. The problem is that, among other things, our income has not kept pace. According to the May 2008 Issue Brief by the Public Assets Institute (www.publicassets.org), between 1996-2006 Vermonters’ median household income grew 44%. During that same period, food prices increased 23%, rental housing outside Chittenden County 29%, inside the county 47%, average municipal tax on a home 63%, the median value home price 104%, fuel oil 126%, health insurance 130%, and basic cable TV 138%.

Let’s make certain that Vermonters help each other bridge these challenging times. At a minimum, make sure that the emergency food shelf in your town is fully stocked all year long. The people who use it may be people you know.