Modern-day Robin Hoods perform subversive acts every day to help the working poor survive
The movie "Robin Hood" recently opened in theaters across America with considerable fanfare and a No. 2 box office ranking. But when I think of Robin Hood, I don't picture Russell Crowe wearing 13th-century leather as he gathers his merry band of outlaws. I picture Jonathan.
A couple of years ago, I was interviewing people around the country to get their thoughts about the state of the economy. Jonathan was a supervisor in a grocery store and he told me how he "padded" the wages of his employees. Many of them parents, he said, they spent their days sorting, packing and stocking food for a global food company that fed millions but they didn't earn enough money to feed their own kids. So sometimes bags of groceries would find their way into his workers' hands as they headed home to their families. "I guess you could call me Robin Hood," Jonathan said.
As my research continued, I kept running into Robin Hoods -- Cora, Bea, Andrew, Lyle and dozens of other middle-income people who told me similar accounts. They didn't look like folk heroes and they didn't have bows and arrows slung over their shoulders, but they were subversives defending their small corners of humanity and helping people survive.
They were busy managers in big-box companies, tough-talking nurses in local hospitals, harried principals in public schools and fast-paced supervisors in large restaurant chains. And they had front-row seats to a movie that might be titled, "Not Fair," in which American families flounder on unsustainable wages in jobs with no sick leave, no paid time off, no health insurance -- just one illness or car breakdown away from crushing debt and total despair. This is what turned them into Robin Hoods.
These merry men and women provide medical treatment that people need but can't afford. They mark a working mom "present" at work so she doesn't lose pay when, really, she's home taking care of a sick child.
Some work in schools and let children stay after classes -- under the radar -- because their parents have to work and can't possibly afford after-school care. Some pass along a little extra heating fuel to families who otherwise would have to choose between heating or eating. Some "lose" an order to disconnect a family's electrical service.
The acts of Robin Hoodism I discovered were as varied as the dangers faced by families who work hard but live poor.
All in all, though, these acts don't add up to much. They can't help most of the working poor from seeing their debts mount, their homes foreclosed, their utilities shut off, their children denied any hope of a college education. They barely affect the yawning gap between rich and poor in this country, which has widened dramatically over the past couple of decades.
Still, when a Robin Hood stands up against a corrupt king, it is a bigger story than that. It is a morality tale, one that can inspire others to subversion or political action.
Some people -- those who live in comfort, of course -- might consider the Robin Hoods among us nothing but outlaws, cheats or thieves. And I suppose that old England's Robin Hood was a criminal, technically speaking -- along with the original tea party rebels, the Freedom Riders and Rosa Parks.
Still, the accounts of "economic disobedience" I've been hearing sound a lot less criminal than the recent testimony of financial "leaders" who explain why the vast expansion of their wealth -- even as millions of families lose everything -- is just the way the free market works. And ought to work.
These are not simple moral matters. But, as a contemporary Robin Hood told me recently, "Some wrongs are a lot bigger than others."
First Published May 23, 2010 12:00 am