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?