Which poor people deserve our help?

Conservatives like to accuse the media of being too liberal. Maybe it’s because we spend so much time covering the downtrodden that we get angry about the economic and social circumstances that put them there.

I admit to having some liberal bias. I believe that a certain level of health care should be guaranteed for everybody; that nobody should go hungry in a land with so much food; that no one should have to sleep on the street. I think that those of us who’ve been fortunate should help out those who have been dealt a bad hand. I think that the rich can pay a little more in taxes and still live far better than the other 99 percent.

But sometimes you meet people who test those convictions. “Hank” is one of them.

I met Hank more than a year ago when I was editing a weekly newspaper. He came into the office to ask if somebody could write a story about his family’s dire straits. A friend was planning a fundraiser for his family, and he was hoping that we would publicize it. Hank was panicking because he was unemployed and about to lose his subsidized housing and was worried that he, his wife, and his severely disabled daughter Lori would be put out on the street. He was hoping somebody would read about him and offer him help.

He was unkempt and reeked of cigarette smoke and clothes that had been worn too long. A gray stubble peppered his jaw, and his bloodshot eyes teared up as he spoke about Lori, hobbled since birth with a deformed leg, in her 20s and robbed of a normal life. He said that health problems limited how much he could work.

I gently asked him about where he had gone for help, and he mentioned his daughter’s doctors, the town’s social service agency, and local officials. But he said he came up dry every time.

Slowly he started to tell his life story, and as he did the tears stopped. He spoke of alcohol problems and failed marriages. His first wife left him when she was pregnant, after finding out that her own sister was also pregnant with his child. He had a sly twinkle in his eyes when he told that story. Then, when he told me he had a $25,000 credit card bill because he brought his daughter “a few nice dresses,” the last of my sympathy ebbed away.

I mumbled to Hank that I would see what I could do, then struggled with what to do next. Does he deserve a story that was a play for sympathy? Was he a downtrodden man to whom life had dealt an unfair hand and who deserved a helping hand from government and charitable neighbors? Or was he somebody who had lived irresponsibly for too long and now wanted the community and the system to bail him out?

I would guess that most of the people who are struggling today fall into the first category. But if we strengthen the safety net for them – as I still think we should – we have to figure that a few Hanks will land in it, too. And so will people like “Iris,” a home health care worker who takes care of an acquaintance’s 90-year-old mother. Iris trades her food stamps to a family member for cash so she can buy cigarettes and booze, stuff you can’t buy with food stamps.

Our views of the disadvantaged tend to have one of two faces. The sympathetic see the Joad family. The unsympathetic see Precious’s momma. Between these extremes are millions of the unemployed, underemployed, elderly and sick who are finding it harder and harder to get by.

Hank and Iris are the poster children for those who want to cut away at the safety net, who feel that the poor got that way because they are irresponsible, made bad choices and didn’t work hard enough. Many might question whether their hard-earned money should pay for government-subsidized housing, food stamps and other programs that Hank and Iris depend on. The unsympathetic characters like Hank, and the people who know how to scam the system like Iris, ruin it for the millions of struggling families who truly deserve some relief, and a helping hand.

But does that mean we let everybody fend for themselves, as some would suggest?
If we don’t strengthen the safety net, what happens to people like Hank’s disabled daughter?

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9 thoughts on “Which poor people deserve our help?

  1. People like Hank are always going to exist and will manipulate the system to get what they need. On the other hand, tons of corporate crime exists and I think this has an even bigger impact on the distribution of wealth in this country. The super rich are in control and they are so influential over the government that they can pass whatever legislation is necessary to garner the biggest profits, normally at the expense of the common worker. Keeping the minimum wage low and slashing healthcare benefits just lines the pockets of the top 1%, and it makes me sick. So often the CEOs of companies say, “if you raise taxes we won’t be able to create new jobs because we won’t have enough capital to reinvest in the business.” BS, just pay yourself less. Despite this terrible economy the richest Americans are still seeing their salaries grow.

  2. I agree with Rachel – there will always be people like Hank and Iris that will manipulate the system and who seem to not want to improve their current situation. They want the easy way out. They want to take the path of least resistance. The solution is to create systems that cannot be manipulated and that do not “enable” the people using them. Create programs that demand personal involvement, commitment to improve, and demonstrated progress along the way. Create programs that reward that good behavior, not just handouts. There are programs currently in existence that work this way and the outcome is a positive one for both the person being helped and those offering the help — duplicate them. Teach them how to fish …

  3. Sue and Rachel, thanks so much for your insights! Keep reading and keep talking!

  4. I think the last paragraph of your post really points to the difficulty, both in practical terms and politically: it would be so much easier if we could separate out the Hanks from the Loris and determine who to help. But the way poverty functions — no person exists in a social or a familial vacuum — doesn’t really allow us to do that. So in the interest of having a social safety net, which is a good thing for everyone, it’s probably necessary to accept that despite our best efforts to weed them out there are always going to be a few people gaming the system.

    PS. As a fellow liberal/progressive, I wouldn’t call being a liberal ‘liberal bias’. Sometimes the facts themselves just have a liberal bias 🙂

    • I couldn’t agree more with you! I think that there will always be people who game the system — whether they are billionaires who hide their money overseas or people who trade their food stamps for money so they can buy booze. We can’t let them undermine the safety net for the majority of people who truly need help. Thank you for writing!

  5. This is something I struggle with too. More personally than you can imagine. The only answer that I’ve come up with is that we need to correct some of the inequalities and help where we can. Having a few like the stories you mention inhibit the help available for others can only lead to injustices and inhumanity. If you can, sure, put up some guards. But if you really want to help, it can’t get in the way of that.

    • Thanks for your very thought-provoking comments. I think that this coming election will be a referendum on the type of country we want to be.

      • I’m tired of referendums. Supposedly that’s what we’ve been doing for the past, I don’t know how long. I may not have always agreed with the guy, which is part of a healthy society, but I miss the Clinton era. Seems like they got more done than the last 11 years or so. I’m just sick of all the bickering, the flip flopping on the voter’s part as well as the politicians. I just want a working government, and an honest one. If that’s a republican one, a democrat one, or an independent one, fine. As long as we are moving forward, which I am not sure that we are for many reasons, including some that you name. And I am not laying blame. The only ones that we can really blame are we the voters. We put people in these positions and sit back and watch. But it would be nice to see something different, which we definitely got from the tea party candidates, but I’m not really sure what we saw there. At least with the more notorious ones.

      • That should be “not really sure what we saw with the tea party candidates.”

        And this is why I loathe typing on an iPod. Small buttons, fat fingers.

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