Thursday, March 5, 2009

Rich People and Poor People, Part 1

After twenty years practicing law, the biggest change in working for a nonprofit is the range of people that you get to know. When I was in private legal practice, my clients tended to be middle management at corporations or mid-level bureaucrats working for the government. People a lot like me in background and education. It’s not the same working first for Central Dallas Ministries and now Central Dallas CDC.

I meet both much richer and much poorer people. It isn’t an unusual day when I meet with both someone who is homeless and needs our help and someone who has many millions and we hope will help fund our work. I’m always struck by how rich and poor people are alike, regardless of their income, and how different their worlds are at the same time.

Most homeless people are homeless because of mental illness, or addiction, or a series of unfortunate events—a sickness, the breakup of a marriage, a job loss, a stint in prison—that in combination turned out to be a little more than they could handle. Many of them were well-educated and a surprising number are autodidacts and can discourse at length about some obscure topic or another. In fact, some homeless people can get a little obsessive about their interest and may not know facts that you would have thought everybody in the country knew.

A lot of people that are homeless also have a surprising amount of practical knowledge—the stuff you need to know to survive on the street. They know where you can get a meal; where you can get out of the cold; where the police will bother you and where they won’t, who’s dangerous and who isn’t; all the secret unknown places in a city where you crash for a night in safety. But they may not know how to drive a car anymore.

In some ways the wealthy are similar. If you have money then you can indulge your hobbies and your whims in ways the rest of us can’t do. I’ve know people with a collection of vintage airplanes; people that devoted their lives to following a college sports team; that traveled across the world just to see a particular piece of art. I’ve also know wealthy people who have surprising gaps in their knowledge. One story, perhaps apocryphal, tells of a masterful Dallas trial lawyer, who was flying to Quebec and asked when the plane would be crossing the ocean.

Those of us in the middle are constrained by our need not to fall into the lower class. Those that have much, or nothing, are freer to follow their whims.

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