Thirty-one years ago, almost to the day, I got off a plane at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York, and saw, for the first time, the enterprise, affluence, inequality and decay that is America.

My friend’s mother picked us up in the biggest sports utility vehicle I’d ever seen, skillfully navigating pot holes and toll booths in heavy traffic. Trash was everywhere and rusty old factory buildings on the side of the road suggested a wealthier past. But all my friend’s mother talked about was her latest Apple computer which had just been released on the market that week.

They had a pool on their leafy Westchester County property and a housekeeper who shopped, cooked and cleaned. She’d been with the family for years and had managed to move to a decent apartment in Brooklyn with her daughter thanks to this gig, my friend explained. “It’s complicated.”

I had arrived in the richest country on Earth. This idea of superior wealth is repeated so often that many Americans still think of their nation that way.

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Of course, it’s more complicated than that. We’re also the most unequal country in that club of Rich Nations. (Sweden comes second.) As far as per capita income, the United States ranks 19th.

This, I explain to my 13-year-old son, is why I’m planning to donate $100 and maybe more to the immigrant families who were left homeless by a natural gas explosion earlier this month. I just need to wait until pay day – because after covering the mortgage, and paying for my new contacts and groceries, there’s no money left for charity.

We’re middle-class Americans, struggling to maintain a nice lifestyle that, in some ways, pales in comparison to what middle-class Swedes enjoy. For us, every dollar counts because life here is expensive, especially for the not-so-wealthy.

But let’s put things in perspective.

The owner of the apartment building that blew up earlier this month in Silver Spring, Maryland, a mere five-minute drive from where we live, had received more than 1,600 code violations in recent years for unsanitary conditions, rats, bed bugs, missing smoke detectors and a number of other problems that affect poor people in the richest nation on Earth.

Seven people died that night.

Newspapers and TV stations have interviewed people who were displaced, and some who live in adjacent apartment buildings owned by the same company. Families who still have a place to live don’t dare to turn their stoves back on.“We don’t feel safe here,” Angelica Alvarez, told The Washington Post.

At least 100 people remain homeless, some of whom cannot get certain government aid because they lack immigration documents. So it’s up to us to help – another very American idea.

The organizations that are assisting victims of the Silver Spring accident report that because of all food and clothes donations in recent days they only need money now. That’s where I plan to come in.

As soon as I have some extra money to spend. On Friday.

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Photos: Jodi Doff and 401(k)

 

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