Monday, March 07, 2005

We're all "deserving" poor

On a couple of e-mail lists I read, the discussion has been about whether Wal-Mart and welfare are evil, and who should get what from any kind of "dole". There was even a reference to a civil service position titled "Overseer of the Worthy Poor". (Paging Alfred P. Doolittle? Mr. Doolittle, to the white courtesy telephone please?) The discussion is downright Dickensian; the term "poor house" has even come up, for crying out loud.

"Deserving or undeserving?" is a moral question for today, not just for the Victorians or the Pilgrims. It is difficult, painful, and extremely context-sensitive. I believe we should set the government's bar for this the same way I believe we should set the bar for justice: no innocent person should be punished, even if it means some guilty ones get away. Community assistance—from federal to municipal, from cash to food to training—should be given to those who need it. It shouldn't be dependent on how they arrived in that situation unless they committed a crime. No person's basic need should be left unmet, even if this means giving to some who don't deserve it.

Many others have done a better job than I could explaining how we should look out for each other. As just one excellent, immediate example, take Josh Marshall on Social Security (emphasis added, brilliance in the original):

The concept behind Social Security is fundamentally different. The first premise is that if you put in a lifetime's work there is simply a level of destitution below which society will not let you fall. Maybe you made so little during your working years that there wasn't enough to save. Or maybe you just didn't plan ahead well enough. Or maybe you suffered some misfortune. Whatever. If you worked you won't be destitute when you retire. People who made big bucks through their lives don't get a particularly good 'deal' from Social Security, if you insist on seeing it in investment terms. But that's a distorting prism, sort of like thinking you got a rotten deal on your medical insurance if you never have a catastrophic illness.

I like to think of this as the moral equality of work. In our society, we allow the market to assign all manner of different cash values to different sorts of work or even the same sorts of work under different circumstances. And by and large, within some very small limitations like the minimum wage or certain non-discrimination laws, most of us think this is how it should be. I certainly do. (In this sense, I think collective bargaining amounts to another competitive arrangement within a market economy -- though doctrinaire free market folks have always seen it in contrary terms.)

But the cash value of work isn't the same as its moral value. And if you look at the values imbedded in all those Social Security actuarial tables, you see this principle: whether you were a janitor or a fast-food worker or a doctor or a tycoon, if you worked during your working years you shouldn't be left destitute when your working years are over (retirement) or when, through no fault of your own, you can't work anymore (disability).

In any case, that's only one way to look at it. More prosaically, you might just say that there are certain risks we choose to share across society. And this is one of them.

Here's what I wonder: why isn't there a clear, loud majority in this country for the idea that "there is simply a level of destitution below which society will not let you fall"? Are we still so completely indoctrinated in Puritanism, lo these centuries later, that we truly believe misfortune is a failure? that poverty is a symptom of sin? Or, on practical grounds, do people who think seriously about such things believe that American society is better off with some number of people being completely unable to meet their own needs?

People who oppose Social Security, or personal bankruptcy, or cash welfare to indivduals (as opposed to cash welfare to corporations, since the same people rarely oppose that) often do so on principled grounds; but I cannot imagine myself choosing their principles. How on earth can someone assert that each individual should be completely self-reliant, regardless of their circumstances? This is not a straw man; those who put "personal responsibility" at the top of their list of virtues do not, in the same breath, make exceptions for layoffs, cancer, or clinical depression. Emotional appeals to imagine themselves in such circumstances are ineffective; rational arguments that it's inefficient to have a large block of the population undernourished, unhealthy, or unmotivated fail to convince.

To cite another example only briefly: Personal bankruptcy is, in the U.S., a Constitutional right that politicians find it easy to strip away. Oh, this right has its defenders, but they are vastly outnumbered by the monied and powerful. But this is the interests of a very few winning out over the interests of the vast many. It doesn't matter whether you look at individual stories of how bankruptcy saved someone's life, or at the collective truth that our society needs this help but the powerful use it to manipulate us. (Don't want to read the words? Here's the accompanying chart.) Either way, there is no social benefit, no moral value in forcing people to live in indenture to a company. On moral and practical grounds, bankruptcy is a way of setting the floor below which we will not allow lives to fall.

These are long-term challenges but also immediate—this week!—debates and votes. Marshall's blog has an area devoted to the bankruptcy bill, including an excellent summary of how bankruptcy is intertwined with home prices, health care, unequal education, and so much more into the general decline in American economic health. And it won't get any better soon: Labor Blog tells us how right-wing nuts are strategizing the death of minimum wage and overtime protections.

So much for public policy. In addition to our civic evaluation about who gets how much help, we each have to make a personal one. When someone stops me and asks for money, if I have something, I give something. When someone asks for something I can give—as little as borrowing my ladder or as much as sleeping on my couch for a week—why would I not give it? It's the model I want my children to see.

There are few better things to do than to donate through the Untied Way [sic], "a program of small cash donations to individuals for use in self-identified need areas." Columnist Jon Carroll writes about this every Christmas:

We're all experts in how other people should get their lives together. There are the worthy homeless and the unworthy homeless. You may concentrate on the adjective, or you may concentrate on the noun. I'm a noun guy.

That 2003 column has some wonderful phrasing about being both a citizen and a human, about giving enough that you know you're making a choice, about not comparing their self-destructive expenditures with your own self-destructive expenditures. Those are variations on the theme Carroll wrote in 1996:

Go to your ATM and take out $100 in crisp $20 bills. The $100 figure is a suggestion only; $200 would be better and $40 would be splendid, too. What's one-five-hundredth of your annual gross income? Surely that's little enough to handle the need and want in your area.

Take these lovely bills and go to a busy area in your community. If your community does not have a busy area, downtown San Francisco is darned busy this time of year.

Walk along the street admiring whatever you choose to admire. When someone asks you for money, give that person a $20 bill. Repeat this process until all the 20s are gone. Voila and zip: the Untied Way.

Now it may be that some of the people to whom you give money will spend it unwisely. They will not use it to update their resumes; they might not even put it toward the purchase of a better pair of shoes.

Some of the people experiencing need and want are also suffering from confusion. This confusion is often chemical. Sometimes the chemicals are ingested; sometimes they are produced naturally by the brain. Naturally, it would be better if they sought help. It would be better if you sought help sometimes, too, and you have not always done so.


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