Teach a man to fish…


A friend of mine had a great comment on the proverb “give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach him how to fish, feed him for a lifetime.”  The man isn’t going to live long enough to become a fisherman, my friend pointed out, if he starves in the meantime.  I think the proverb is true, but it’s not talking about two mutually exclusive things.  Yes, we need to teach people to be self-sufficient; but that’s a long-term goal, and they still need to be fed in the short-term, today.  Why can’t we do both?

Yes, I understand that feeding people can discourage them from becoming self-sufficient, and teach them to rely on charity or government aid; but the answer can’t be to cut off aid.  Let’s come up with some solutions–things like job training for people on welfare, or a gradual decrease in benefits as people’s situations improve, rather than a sudden drop-off–but let’s make sure we take care of people in the short run, too.

I recently posted about the problem of supplying living wages to people who were, through one misfortune or another, struggling to feed a family but stuck in a low- or minimum-wage job.  Many people responded, rightly, that we need to address the root problems of poverty, like the breakdown of the family and of community solidarity, instead of just slapping on economic solutions like higher wages.  But here’s the deal: things like that take time.  We can’t leave people hungry while we begin a long-term plan of restoring the traditional family so that there won’t be so many struggling single mothers or so many people abandoned by their relatives.  We can’t neglect the long term culture war, of course; but why can’t we work on both problems at the same time?

I understand that some economists will say we’re not actually helping people by giving them short-term aid, since we’re setting them up for a life of dependence; our intentions are good, but our actions aren’t actually in the best interest of the poor.  But if you’re expecting someone to start building (or rebuilding) an independent life, he’s going to need help along the way.  No homeless man is going to get off the street if he doesn’t learn how to manage money, manage his health, and support himself; but while he’s learning to do that, he still needs a place to sleep and something to eat.  And if you’d like him to go find a job so he can take care of himself, he’s not going to get many interviews if you don’t start by giving him a “handout” of clean clothes, medicine, and healthy food; not to mention a shower and a shave!

By all means, let’s teach men how to fish; but while they’re still learning and they’re not catching much, let’s share some of our fish with them.


“Volunteers of America Soup Kitchen,” 1936


Who Deserves a “Living Wage?”

Market Basket : News Photo

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what a living wage means.  (Well, mostly I’ve been thinking about how we just switched jobs and moved across state to renovate and move into my parent’s house, and care for my mother with Alzheimer’s.  Which is why I haven’t written in so long, but I miss you guys!)  I understand the economic argument against raising the minimum wage, and I also understand the argument that a $7 or $8 minimum wage is sufficient because jobs like fast food are meant for teenagers, not for family breadwinners.  But here’s something that I haven’t really heard people talking about: what are you supposed to do in an economy where adults supporting families are forced to resort to minimum-wage jobs?  Sure, there’s still plenty of teenagers working at McDonald’s who only need spending cash; but there are also plenty of older or more qualified people, who have a much more important need for a living wage, but who couldn’t find any other place to work.

I’ve worked at McDonald’s, making $7.50 an hour, alongside a single mother with a mentally disabled son, who gave up her much higher-paying job as a nurse because she “couldn’t stand to watch people die anymore.”  I’ve worked at a factory, making $8.50 an hour, alongside a single mother who took on extra overnight shifts when she was seven months pregnant, to make more money.  I’ve worked at a grocery store deli for $9 an hour, alongside a woman who was mostly supporting her daughter and granddaughter, but couldn’t work more than a few days a week because of an injured back.  I’ve also watched my boss at the deli, a married father of two, who took nine years to work up to manager so that he can support his family–even though it meant working at least 50 hours a week.  These are not the people that minimal-wage jobs are designed for; but they are doing these jobs, and we can’t just pretend they’re not there.

I just heard a new argument, too.  On his Facebook page, blogger Matt Walsh argues that people shouldn’t be able to live comfortably on minimum wage, because it will make them complacent:

“Well, you can’t live comfortably on minimum wage.” Yes, of course you can’t. That’s the point. You aren’t supposed to live there anyway. You get in and you get out. You move up and on. And while you’re moving, you shouldn’t be pursuing a “comfortable life,” necessarily, but a successful and fulfilling one.

In this article, Walsh elaborates:

You’re supposed to get in and get out. Move in and move one. You’re meant to use it as a platform on your way to something better, but the platform is not meant to be a comfortable place to set up camp and hang out for a few decades.

Now look; I do actually know people who are perfectly comfortable staying at these dead-end jobs, just as long as they have enough money for beer and pot.  But I also know people who are stuck there, and it’s not from any lack of trying.  Does Walsh really think that people can automatically have a “successful and fulfilling” life just by working hard?  What about people in a poor economic area?  What about people with disabilities?  What about people who have had successful and fulfilling careers, but have suffered losses which make it impossible for them to continue?  At the factory, I worked with a gentle Vietnam vet who had lost a lot of his fine motor control because of a combat injury, so he could only perform the simplest assembly-line tasks.  I guess he should have tried harder to climb the corporate ladder.  At the deli, I worked with an chivalrous ex-Marine, firefighter, and steel worker who suffered from some sort of mental illness.  He was fond of telling me that he had delivered four babies on duty as a firefighter; but now his mental state was such that he couldn’t handle the stress of a small-town deli dinner rush.  I guess he should have dug deeper and found some more ambition.

I don’t know what the economic solution for this is.  I understand that, no matter how much these people may need or deserve a higher wage, companies cannot just raise their wages across the board without compensating by hiring fewer people or raising prices.  I recently had an idea: what if companies paid new hires on a sliding scale, depending on their circumstances?  Teenagers living at home could be paid the bare minimum.  People with young children would be paid more.  People whose spouses had high-paying jobs would be paid on the lower end of the scale; people who were single parents, sole breadwinners, or suffering the effects of disabilities would be paid on the higher end.

I’m really not sure if this could work economically, or how you could guarantee people’s situations would be judges justly, or what safeguards you could build in to .prevent the employer from playing favorites.  But I honestly can’t think of a better principle to base a solution on.  I do know of one employer who implemented something similar: a Catholic priest, who employed my friend to do maintenance on the church and parish school grounds, told him that he would get a raise when he got married, and another raise for each child he had.  I don’t know if this would work for most companies, but it sounds to me like an ideal policy.  What you think?  Do you know of any companies, or countries, that have tried something similar?

What’s Luck Got To Do With It?

When you think about how you got where you were, or why other people’s situations are different, how often do you think about luck?  Maybe you feel sorry for people in tough situations, but you can’t help thinking that it’s partly their fault–after all, if they didn’t have a good job lined up, they shouldn’t have gotten into so much debt…if they needed a job so badly, they should have worked harder at applying…if they wanted to live in a better neighborhood, they shouldn’t have dropped out of high school…if they weren’t in a position to get pregnant, they shouldn’t have been screwing around.

I’ve had these thoughts.  But the older I get, the more I realize how little good decisions have to do with it.  There’s a certain logic behind that horrible bumpersticker, “if you can’t feed ’em, don’t breed ’em”–but only if the person with the bumpersticker has never made any sexual mistakes himself.  For every couple shamed for an unmarried pregnancy, there’s a dozen more who weren’t chaste either, but who were lucky enough to never get pregnant, so no one ever found out; and there are hundreds more who made equally serious mistakes, but luckily they weren’t the kind of mistakes that cause such a public crisis.  I’ve talked to someone who thought he had the right to judge people on welfare, because he himself had “never made any poor economic decisions.”  Really?  My guess would be that he did, but that he could afford to, or someone bailed him out.  If not, I’m willing to bet he’s made other kinds of mistakes, just like everyone else has; he’s just lucky enough that they didn’t result in poverty.

Here’s another example: I recently heard from a woman who panhandles for a living, who said that she was very willing to work, but it was hard to get a job because she had shoplifting on her record from when she was 16.  Now sure, that was her fault; but what were you doing when you were 16?  I did plenty of stupid things; I’m just lucky that none of them were illegal.

This runs the other way, too: instead of judging people for making poor decisions, it’s easy to become insecure and bitter over people who didn’t work any harder than you, but happened to have the right connections to land a better job, or the family help they needed to put a down payment on their dream house.  It’s easy to feel like you’re doing something wrong, like you should be working harder, because your situation is so much worse than theirs.  But as my brother pointed out, if you’re living thriftily and working hard, but you still can’t make ends meet without some help, that’s not a problem with you.  It’s a problem with the system (or the economy, or probably just the whole fallen world). But the myth of hard work=prosperity still exists, and it’s so pervasive that we don’t even realize we’ve bought into it. Bill O’Reilly put it very succinctly when he said:

you gotta look people in the eye and tell ’em they’re irresponsible and lazy…Because that’s what poverty is, ladies and gentlemen. In this country, you can succeed if you get educated and work hard. Period.(Quoted in this excellent article, in which I actually agree with Obama about something)

I certainly find myself thinking this way sometimes.  But I’m here to say that I work hard, and I’m well educated, and I’m still poor.  It’s not even just about hard work and responsibility; it’s about a lot more subtle things, like upbringing and family history.  I’m not trying to say that you can blame your shortcomings on society; but I think people are so eager to reject that line of thinking that they rush to the other extreme, and act as if your upbringing and your surroundings have nothing to do with it.  If you think about it, you’re not just lucky if you’re well-educated and have a decent job; you’re lucky if your parents taught you how to save money.  You’re lucky if your parents showed you how to work hard.  You’re lucky if your parents spoke English at home.   You’re lucky if you grew up in a good neighborhood, with good influences.  You’re lucky if your parents stayed married.

I don’t know why God allows some people to have such bad luck.  But I know He doesn’t look kindly on people who attribute bad luck to moral failing.  That’s the way people thought in the Old Testament, and it’s still alive today, in the “prosperity Gospel” and in conservative ideology.  In the Book of Job, Job’s “comforters” try to convince him that he’s harboring some secret sin, and that’s what he’s being punished for.  After all, God punishes evildoers and rewards the righteous.  But Job consistently affirms his innocence, even though he doesn’t understand why God is letting him suffer.  If we believe that poor people are necessarily poor because of their own shortcomings, we’re just as bad as Job’s friends or Joel Osteen.

Uncluttering your Mind

Dishes, Dishwasher, Dirty, Kitchen, Housework, Dish

My mother once said, “being rich won’t make you happy, but being poor can sure make you unhappy.”  I don’t have much to add to this succinct truth, except that I’m discovering it’s true for a lot of things besides money.  In my efforts at detachment and mental peace, I often tell myself that a clean house (or a better schedule, or a better organizing system, etc.) won’t really make me happier, and so it’s pointless to get anxious about them.  But what I’m finding out is that a clean house doesn’t make me happier, but it does take away a big occasion for me to be sad.  When I look around a cluttered or chaotic room, all the unfinished chores and things out of place automatically stress me out.  But when I look around a clean room, all I think is “what a nice room,” and I’m free to go on to other things.  Even the simple visual is important; things piled on top of each other in my house create metaphorical piles of worries in my mind, and an open and clean room clears my mind.

If you’re someone who’s prone to anxiety or depression, it’s okay to make your life easier.  You’re not necessarily trying to find happiness through making more money, or buying nice things for the house, or cleaning up; you’re just taking away things that make it easier for you to be sad.

Assumptions about Panhandlers


My small New Hampshire town recently lost an expensive lawsuit to the ACLU, which was defending a panhandler who claimed that he had been harassed by the police.  The police had told him that standing on the sidewalk and holding a sign asking for money was a crime, which it isn’t–yet.  In the next town over, they are considering making it illegal.

These kinds of laws are usually justified as public safety concerns–a driver stopping to give money may be rear-ended, or a panhandler walking into the road may be hit.  When I researched it a bit, though, I barely found any mentions of accidents caused by panhandling.  This seems to be a way to hide the real purpose of the law.

The other motives for a law like this seem to be (a) it makes people uncomfortable, (b) it makes the town look bad, and (c) they’re mostly scammers or addicts.  None of these seem sufficient to warrant a law, in my opinion; but the issue is bringing out a lot of other ugly attitudes and confusing questions.  I certainly don’t have any solutions for homelessness, but I have few thoughts on how we should consider this problem:

    • I’m not naive; I understand that some of these people are scammers, and quite a few are addicts, looking for quick cash for their next fix.  Nevertheless, I can’t quite square it with my conscience to never give to these people.  If they use my money for something bad, I don’t think my connection to the evil is direct enough to make me morally culpable (unless it was really, really obvious, like if they were already drunk).  And with that out of the way, I can’t believe that it can do my soul anything but good to offer charity in this way.  (Unless, of course, my motive is just to feel good about myself.)  Even if 9 out of 10 are fakes, what if the one I refuse happens to be the one genuinely in need of help?  (One of my friends pointed me to a lovely Fulton Sheen quote, which says much the same: “I can’t take the chance.”)
    • Most people seem to think that they can tell at a glance whether the panhandler is a fake or not: “He’s young and strong;” “He was smoking a cigarette;” “His clothes were awfully clean for someone who can’t afford food.”  “I’m not going to give money to a bum drinking Dunkin Donuts.”  The problem with this is that looks are deceiving.  Someone may appear strong and healthy, but be suffering from severe mental illness that prevents him from getting or keeping a job.  And just because someone owns a phone, or a cigarette, or some nice clothes, doesn’t mean that he bought them himself; they might have been given to him.  Likewise, he may have been bought that coffee, or he may have used the money he was given to buy Dunkin Donuts, because it was in walking distance and he really wanted something hot.
    • Then again, there’s this objection: “We have agencies for this.”  (Am I the only one who thinks this sounds a little too much like Scrooge?)  “Give your money to the homeless shelter instead.”  This may be the right way to go; at least we can be pretty sure that homeless shelters and other agencies are using the money correctly.  But the fact remains that a lot of people are homeless because of mental illness, and someone with severe mental problems is not necessarily going to be able to seek out the help he needs, or be able to follow the rules in a shelter or complete the qualifications for aid.  For example, imagine someone with severe anxiety entering a welfare office: it’s hot, it’s crowded, there are kids screaming, there are 3 different languages being spoken at once, there’s a complicated sign-in process, and the lady at the counter wants you to show 5 different documents to prove that you’re eligible for aid.  That would send most people running!  Then again, homeless shelters often don’t have any room, and they’re often dangerous, especially for young women.  (“Many can’t go there, and many would rather die…”)

Again, I don’t have any solutions.  (Also, this is the perspective of someone in a small town; this is a much different issue in the big city.)  But what I would like to see is a more human and accurate portrayal of panhandlers.  Enough assumptions and speculations; let’s only say what we really know.

(image license)

How Food Stamp Restrictions Can Fuel Bigger Government

A young woman, teenager with long blond hair lolls on a black leather sofa, watching television and eating crisps and coke here.

The glamorous welfare life.

Missouri is considering a law to ban people using food stamps to purchase steak and seafood, as well as candy, soda, and other junk food.  I don’t think this is a bad idea, at least when it comes to the junk food.  It certainly makes sense to me that the government has a right to decide what tax-payers’ money can be spent on, and it’s not fair to immediately retort with accusations about hatred of poor people.  It’s no surprise that Rick Brattin, the representative who authored the bill, has mixed motives; in the same breath as claiming that he is trying to restore the program to its original purpose of providing essential supplemental nutrition, he adds: “When I can’t afford [filet mignon and crab legs] on my pay, I don’t want people on the taxpayer’s dime to afford those kinds of foods either.”  Is the problem that welfare recipients have no right to buy luxuries with money that was given to them for essentials?  Or is the problem that they don’t deserve them?  Regardless, he has a point.  The government has an obligation to make sure all its citizens have enough healthy food, but it doesn’t have an obligation to make sure they have candy and chips.

After this distinction, though, it gets complicated.  So, no lobster.  Fair enough.  What about in the summer, when lobster is as cheap as chicken?  What about salmon, which is extremely good for you?  Maybe if we only let them buy frozen salmon, which is cheaper?  No chips, fair enough.  What about baked chips?  Not so nutritious, but they’ll curb your temptation to buy the greasy regular ones.  What about crackers?  What about whole wheat crackers?  Well, maybe only if they’re store brand?  What about frozen convenience foods?  After all, they’re expensive and unhealthy.  But what if you have picky kids, and your husband works all day and then comes home and you go to work, and he cooks supper, but he’s so tired he’d really like to just throw in a frozen pizza?  Well, maybe if you can provide a doctor’s note showing that you are sufficiently tired to deserve frozen pizza.  Or maybe one frozen pizza a week, but no more.  What about brand names?  They’re not any healthier than store brands, so that’s out.  Well, what about goat cheese or gouda?  They’re not really any more nutritious than plain old, cheap American cheese.  American cheese it is.

See how crazy this is getting?  And here’s the real problem: if you’re really going to enforce a policy of only nutritious, essential purchases, you’re going to have assign an army of bureaucrats to work out all the details.  And worst of all, you are going to have to authorize a lot more government intrusion.  Do you really want the government to be controlling your grocery shopping habits this closely?  Or, if you think it’s only fair for someone receiving free groceries to have severe restrictions: do you really want to set a precedent for the government to attach all kinds of strings to legitimate assistance?

Now look, if you want to stop welfare fraud, okay.  Require a photo ID to be shown with food stamps purchases.  Tighten up the regulations and investigate suspicious recipients.  But realize that you’re fighting a straw man: it appears that less than 1% of welfare money is abused.  And ask yourself this question: if you authorize the government to decide whether people on welfare have to buy Wheat Thins or Square Shaped Wheat Crackers, what are they going to take over next?

You Know…

I wouldn’t mind it if Republicans said something like “Gosh, we hate to cut food stamps, but we really need to balance this budget for everyone’s good.”  Or maybe “We really need to cut spending somewhere, but we don’t want to cut it from people who need it, so let’s focus on getting rid of welfare fraud and waste, helping people graduate from assistance, and getting the money only to the people who really need it.”  But they don’t.  Instead, you usually find them saying something asinine like “Why should these people get free stuff when I have to pay for it?” or “Why don’t these people just go get a job?”  And that’s why it’s really hard to get behind them, even if they’re right about the need to cut spending.  To paraphrase Billy Joel, I’m starting to feel like I’d rather be wrong with the Democrats than right with the Republicans.

Coming soon, a few thoughts on the proposed Missouri law restricting people on food stamps from buying junkfood, steak, and seafood.  Non-ranty, I promise.