Marko, the guy who cuts my hair, was in a lather about the four percent.
“Outrageous,” he shouted as I cautiously approached the chair. “Four percent!”
“Don’t you mean 47 percent?” I asked, settling in for my haircut.
Marko snorted. “No, not that. I mean the four percent of people in Loudoun County who are living in poverty. Four percent!”
Marko hails from another country, and possesses both the immigrant’s love of America and the fresh eyes of an outsider that enable him to see paradoxes that I sometimes take for granted.
“Here we are, the richest county in America. Our median income is almost $120,000. The economy is improving. And the poverty level is going up. Four percent!”
“Oh, I saw that in the Washington Post,” I said. “Actually, it’s even higher than that. About 4.3 percent,” I said.
“How many people would that be?” Marko asked. He knows I used to work for the county government, and sometimes he overestimates my command of facts.
“Well, I guess that would be about 13,000 people,” I said, after doing a quick calculation. “A lot of people, when you think about it.”
“And what is the Board of Supervisors doing about that?” He answered his own question. “Not much.”
He said he had read that the board had started next year’s budget discussion by focusing on the tax rate.
“Their only priority is cutting taxes, not helping people in need,” he said. “So here we are, with the highest incomes in the country, and before they even know what the needs are, they’re saying, ‘This is all we can afford to spend.’ Here, in the richest county in America!”
“Well, the county does have programs for homeless people, people without jobs…,” I said, but my voice trailed off as his scissors moved closer to my ear and I saw the indignation in his face.
“What is an acceptable number of hungry children, here in a county where the average household earns $120,000?” he snapped.
I had no answer for that, so I remained silent until he calmed down. Finally, I ventured an answer.
“I guess the supervisors would say that the government shouldn’t try to do it all,” I said. “Faith-based groups and nonprofit organizations have a role, too. Even individuals.”
“But it’s not enough,” he said. “Poverty rates are rising. That’s when the government needs to help the most, when everything else isn’t enough.”
“Well, I guess we all need to help,” I said softly.
Marko stopped snipping for a moment and gazed out the window of his shop.
“There’s a fellow I see out there sometimes,” he said. “Homeless, I guess. Sometimes he holds a sign, looking for work. But his hair is long and dirty and his clothes are worn. Who is going to give him a job?”
“You know what I’m going to do?” he continued. “The next time I see him, I’m inviting him in. I’ll offer to wash his hair and give him a haircut, on the house. A shave, too, if he wants it.”
He looked back at me.
“How about you?” he asked. “What are you doing?”
I thought about that for a while. I pay my taxes, I thought, and I’d like the government to do more to help people in need. I also give to my church, which has an active program to help hungry people. A group from my church is participating in the Western Loudoun CROP Hunger Walk in Purcellville next month to help raise money for hungry children and families. We also collect food for Loudoun Interfaith Relief.
But I had to admit that I wasn’t doing enough.
“Not enough,” I finally said, as Marko brushed the hair off my apron, signaling that my haircut was over.
So I thanked Marko, drove home, sat down at my computer and began to type.