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“Are there no prisons? … (no) Union workhouses?”

— Ebenezer Scrooge, expressing his indifference toward people in need.

In the strange and divisive politics of our time, there’s one thing we know for sure: In an otherwise wealthy country, more people are being left behind.

Coal miners in West Virginia, textile workers in North Carolina, factory workers in Michigan, mill workers in Oregon, farmworkers in California, homeless people in Santa Rosa — all can testify to the paradox of American prosperity in 2018.

There are, after all, two Sonoma counties — one featuring Wine Country estates and the other featuring people living in cars and alleyways.

In a wealthy country, this makes no sense. It’s neither smart nor humane.

Nevertheless, the chasm between rich and poor continues to widen.

Close to home, there is this: A 2014 study, using census tract data, found that someone born into a household in east Santa Rosa can expect to live nine years longer than someone born only a few miles away in west Santa Rosa. Median incomes in some eastside neighborhoods are more than twice the median incomes of some westside neighborhoods.

Here’s what the Economist magazine reported last month: “If you were to ask most Americans which is the poorest state in the nation, they might say Alabama or Mississippi, with their low average incomes and concentrations of African-American poverty. In fact, the state with the largest share of people in poverty is California. As the most populous state, it also has by far the largest number of poor people, 7.4 million.”

This happens in big cities and small. Drive around some of the small towns in this state, and you’ll see parts of California you won’t recognize. Economic growth is happening in large cities, while small towns are suffering economic decline.

In our politics, we try to assign blame to people who have less. If only they got a job, it is said, they wouldn’t need the help of others.

It’s just not true. In 80 percent of California households living below the poverty line, one or more residents is holding down a full-time job. They are, literally, the working poor.

The California Budget and Policy Center estimates that a Sonoma County family with two children and one wage earner would need to make $59,000 a year to cover basic needs (even with employer-paid health care). That would be the equivalent of a job that pays more than $28 an hour. Lots of folks wish they were so lucky.

Wages are not keeping pace with the cost of living. The Economist reported that more than half the Californians living below the poverty line spend more than half their income on housing. For them, there’s not enough left over for food and clothing — and all the things others get to take for granted.

In the past, homelessness was blamed on addiction, mental illness and other social ills. Now it’s common also to list the cost of housing among the principle reasons for people living on the street.

Even in the turbulence of the current political debate, there’s nothing liberal or conservative about worrying about the decline of the middle class. This ought to be everyone’s concern.

The gap separating the wealthy from everyone else offends the promise of equal opportunity for all — and it leads to more social problems than we can count. Whether it’s an opioid epidemic in the small towns of Pennsylvania or gang violence in the small towns of the San Joaquin Valley, hopelessness leads toward a country that has lost faith in its future.

It’s disheartening to read, as we did last week, that life expectancy continues to decline, a shift linked to increased rates of suicide and a record number of fatal drug overdoses.

It’s disheartening, too, to read about the homeless woman in Petaluma who died trying to fetch items from a clothing donation box.

Change defines the times in which we live. Technology and globalization have made some people wealthy and left others behind.

The country will be better off when its politicians acknowledge these changes and offer programs that respond to them: education and retraining, incentives for new home construction, efforts to revitalize small towns, drug rehab programs, help to make sure every working family has a decent place to live and food on the table.

In the meantime, friends and communities can find their own ways to help. To avoid playing favorites, I won’t list all the local nonprofits making a difference in people’s lives.

But you can find them. Make a donation. Sign up to volunteer. Support their work in every way you can.

A friend talks about the importance of finding relief from the political turbulence of our time. Pick a lane, she says.

She means this: To avoid being overwhelmed by all the noise, find something meaningful to do for your neighbors and for your town.

At Christmastime, or any time, what gift could be better than that?

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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