The funeral for my high school buddy Kevin Green was Saturday, near this town where we both grew up.
The doctors say he died at age 54 of multiple organ failure, but in a deeper sense, he died of inequality and a lack of good jobs.
Lots of Americans would have seen Kevin — obese, with a huge gray beard, surviving on disability and food stamps — as a moocher. They would have been harshly judgmental: Why don’t you look after your health? Why did you father two kids outside of marriage?
That acerbic condescension reflects one of this country’s fundamental problems: an empathy gap. It reflects the delusion on the part of many affluent Americans that those like Kevin are lazy or living cushy lives. A poll released this month by the Pew Research Center found that wealthy Americans mostly agree that “poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.”
Lazy? Easy? Kevin used to set out with his bicycle and a little trailer to collect cans by the roadside. He would make about $20 a day.
Let me tell you about Kevin Green. He grew up on a small farm a couple of miles from my family’s, and we both attended the same small rural high school in Yamhill, Ore. We both ran cross country, took welding and agriculture classes, and joined Future Farmers of America. After cross-country practice, I’d drive him home to his family farm, with its milk cows, hogs and chickens.
The Greens encapsulated if not the American dream, at least solid upward mobility. The dad, Thomas, had only a third-grade education and couldn’t read. But he had a good union job as a cement finisher, paying far above the minimum wage, and he worked hard and made sure his kids did, too. He had no trouble with the law.
Kevin and his big sister, Cindy — one of the sweetest girls in school — both earned high school diplomas. Kevin was sunny, cheerful and astonishingly helpful: Any hint that something needed fixing, and he was there with a wrench. But then the dream began to disintegrate.
The local glove factory and feed store closed, and other blue-collar employers cut back. Good union jobs became hard to find. For a while, Kevin had a low-paying nonunion job working for a construction company. After that company went under, he worked as shift manager making trailer homes. He fell in love and had twin boys that he doted on. But because he and his girlfriend struggled financially, they never married.
Then, about 15 years ago, Kevin hurt his back and was laid off. Soon afterward, his girlfriend moved out, took the kids and asked for child support. The loss of his girlfriend, kids and job was a huge blow.
“It knocked him to the dirt,” says his younger brother, Clayton, also a pal of mine. “It destroyed his self-esteem.” Kevin’s weight ballooned to 350 pounds, and he developed diabetes and had a couple of heart attacks. He grew marijuana and self-medicated with it, Clayton says, and was arrested for drug offenses.
My kids would see Kevin and me together and couldn’t believe he had run cross country with me, and that he wasn’t 20 years older. Kevin eventually got disability benefits, but he was far behind in child support and was punished by losing his driver’s license — which made it pretty much impossible to get a job in a rural area.
Disability helped Kevin by providing a monthly check that he desperately needed, but it also hurt him because he might have looked harder for a job if he hadn’t been getting those checks, Clayton says.
Yet it’s absurd to think that people like Kevin are somehow living it up. After child support deductions, he was living on about $180 a month plus food stamps and a small income from selling homegrown pot. He supplemented this by growing a huge vegetable garden and fishing in the Yamhill River.
Three years ago, Cindy died of a heart attack at 52. Then doctors told Kevin a few weeks ago that his heart, liver and kidneys were failing, and that he was dying. He had trouble walking. He was in pain.
He was also worried about his twin boys. They had trouble in school and with the law, jailed for drug and other offenses. The upward mobility that had seemed so promising a generation ago turned out to be a mirage. Family structure dissolved, and lives become grueling — and shorter.
Kevin wrote a will a few days before he died. He bequeathed his life’s savings of $3,500 to his mom for his funeral expenses. Anything left over is to be divided between his children — and he begs them not to fight over it. His ashes will be sprinkled on the farm.
I have trouble diagnosing just what went wrong in that odyssey from sleek distance runner to his death at 54, but the lack of good jobs was central to it. Sure, Kevin made mistakes, but his dad had opportunities for good jobs that Kevin never had.
So, Kevin Green, R.I.P. You were a good man — hardworking, and always on the lookout for someone to help — yet you were overturned by riptides of inequality. Those who would judge you don’t have a clue. They could use a dose of your own empathy.
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