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?

Vaccines, Police, and the Social Contract of Trust

A few thoughts on the social function of trust in the establishment.  I don’t mean to offend anyone, and I’m not 100% sure about this, but this is what I think so far.

My kids were riding their bikes with the neighbors the other day, and pretending that the cops were pulling them over for speeding.  “If you’re going too fast, the police will give you a ticket and take you to jail!” my son said.  “Yeah,” his friend chimed in, “or shoot you!”  His mother was horrified, and rushed in to explain that police only use force if it’s really necessary, and usually they’re very nice and they help people.  I’ve seen this reaction in kids before, especially when we lived in a couple of bad downtown neighborhoods–every time the police drove by, the kids would hide, or warn their parents.  We also had a friend from Rwanda who was terrified of the police, because in his country, if the police pulled you over, they were probably going to beat you up.  We had to convince him that things weren’t like that in America.  In America, you might run into an occasional bad cop, but he was the excpection, not the rule.  In America, we trust the police.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the function of trust in modern society.  We know that some policemen are corrupt or incompetent, but in general we trust them.  We know that the government can be corrupt or incompetent, but in general we trust it–or at least, we trust the FDA, the court system, the surgeon general, and other systems that keep things running smoothly.  Even a conservative who distrusts big government is likely to assume that, in general, our food and products are safe, our justice and voting systems are fair, and our police are lawful.  It’s almost like a social contract that keeps the whole system afloat.

I think the vaccine debate is a good example of the chaos that results when people are no longer willing to start from a default position of trusting the systems we’ve set in place.  I’m not advocating blind trust in the establishment; I try to do some research on my own, and question anything that doesn’t sound right to me.  But in general, I trust mainstream American medicine, and I trust the FDA.  Without a baseline trust in the FDA, we’d have to make every medical and nutritional choice on our own, and most of us are not qualified to do that.  (Plus, who has the time and energy?)  When I see stories like this, about the FDA, the Postal Service (!), and the Consumer Protection Branch of the DOJ exposing a man who sold commercial bleach as a miracle cure, I’m very grateful for the way our government functions.

It’s becoming fashionable to resort to a default of suspicion rather than trust when we think about the medical establishment.  Aside from the fact that very few of us are knowledgeable enough to reasonably challenge commonly accepted medical practices, this creates a huge practical problem–how can society function without this common ground?  How can our government or doctors be effective if they are constantly being forced to prove their qualifications?   Obviously, they must prove their fitness for authority before they are given their position; but once a doctor has earned his MD, or the FDA has rigorously tested a medical treatment and approved it, what sense does it make to assume they are out to get us, unless we have a good reason to think so?



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?

Some Thoughts on “Re-homing”

A warning–this involves a disturbing subject, though I’ve tried to leave out the details, because it’s the ideas and questions about state and family authority that I’m trying to explore.  I’m not sure if I have anything to add to this conversation, but I wanted to record the thought process that it’s led me through.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about “re-homing,” which is when a family cannot handle their adoptive child anymore and tries to find him a new home.  Apparently this doesn’t need to happen through a government or adoption agency; all you need to do is sign over power of attorney to complete a legal, but completely unregulated, “transfer of custody.”  The potential abuses inherent in this situation are obvious, as detailed in this heartbreaking investigation by a Reuters journalist.  When I read up on the subject, though, I found out that it’s a lot more complicated than it looks.

First, consider the parents.  Adopted children, especially the ones from other countries, often have many more physical and psychological problems than their adoptive families are told.  Families can find themselves in situations where, as hard as they try, they cannot keep their biological children safe from an adopted child with a history of sexual abuse, or help a child with severe emotional problems regain stability.  They may not have the money to pay for therapy or medical treatments they hadn’t anticipated, or their family life or marriage may be strained to the breaking point.  (Here are a few examples.)

I also found out that there are often scant resources to help adoptive families in these situations, and there is usually no legal way to put a child back up for adoption without risking legal charges of abandonment and perhaps losing custody of your biological children.  (I’m not well versed in the relevant laws, so I’m not sure if this is 100% accurate; but it seems that if there is help offered to these families, it is scarce enough and hard enough to find that families often feel they have no choice but to resort to some kind of under-the-table arrangement.)  I am beginning to understand how a family can get desperate enough to leave their child with anyone who looks good.

Along with parents who didn’t know about the medical and psychological conditions of the children they adopted, I found that many parents did know, or at least knew it was a possibility, but tragically overestimated their ability to “handle it.”  Towards the end of this article, a therapist describes parents who are in denial about the difficulties of adopting troubled children, who think they can cure severe psychological problems with ordinary family love.  This part hit me hard, because I have often found myself with this mindset.  When I read devastating accounts of abused children, I feel the urge to run right out and adopt them, and love them and make them better.  In more sober moments, I realize that this is naive; I’m not even capable of giving my own children the 24/7 love, patience, and unselfish service that they deserve, so there is no way that I could handle a child with severe disabilities.  That’s why I’ve never seriously considered adoption.  But here I am, a happily married, fairly stable woman in the most prosperous country in the world, with a network of supportive family, friends, and church; if I can’t help these kids, who can?

At first glance, it seemed obvious where the blame lay in the tragic stories above.  Now I’m really not sure what to think.  (Well, except for the Justin Harris example; that one’s pretty obvious.)  I have complete sympathy for these desperate adoptive families, but I’m not sure where help for them is supposed to come from.  Obviously the government, the adoption agencies, and private organizations need to be there to fall back on; but that’s easier said than done.  It’s not like there’s a lot of extra money floating around for these things, or hundreds of eager new social workers lining up to jump into this messy, depressing work.  And I’m not sure where to draw the line on government involvement.  At first it sounded shocking that “re-homing” is not illegal; but then I realized why it’s not.  If we are to treat adoptive families the same as biological families, it would be dangerous to allow the government to have too much influence on their parenting decisions.  What if my husband suddenly died, or developed a horrible disease, and I had to send my kids to live with one of my sisters; would I want the government to get involved, and require that a team of social workers investigate and prove that my sister is fit to have custody of my children?  Would I want them constantly checking on me, or on my sister, to make sure that we were treating our kids well?  But if I don’t want the government scrutinizing my parenting decisions, is it fair to require them to do it to adoptive parents?  On the other hand, if we do make adoptive parents less independent than biological parents, what are we going to do in the case of biological children with severe disabilities, who are just as liable to drive their families into desperation?

No easy answers here.  Just a good opportunity to remind myself that situations that look cut-and-dried always involve more human tragedy and shades of gray than you can see on the surface.