Wednesday, October 19, 2011

At the Corner of Self-Reliant and Selfish

They are bums, and that is why they are homeless.

These are people who have figured out that it's easier to beg than it is to work.

I think the homeless advocates are more interested in keeping the homeless problem going (rather than solving it) because to eliminate homelessness would eliminate their jobs. Governments and nonprofits want to increase the number of people who are dependent on handouts.

Like most people, I worked hard for and earned everything I have in life. I resent having to publicly support those who chose to hinder their existence by making bad life choices. Providing more assistance just gives people an easy way out and takes away their drive, pride, and work ethic.

Everybody has a story. So what? Why should Palo Alto have to take care of all the sad sacks?

Here in Palo Alto we have a place called the Opportunity Center. It was built five years ago to provide shelter and counseling for the homeless. Some feared it would be a magnet for homeless people from all over, but in the time since it opened the number of homeless in Palo Alto has fallen from 341 to 151. The center has given many a chance for a new life. One man has gone from the streets to studying biochemistry at a community college. He wants to be a doctor.

A recent story about the center by Sue Dremann in Palo Alto Online was followed by readers’ comments. Most were supportive. The ones quoted above were not. They are not unusual. You hear them anywhere homelessness or welfare is discussed. They call for hard work and self-reliance. You can almost hear John Philip Sousa playing or see John Wayne squinting into the brightness of the big sky.
Self-reliance is a myth, of course. Elizabeth Warren put it well recently when she said no one in this country does anything without help. We all rely on roads and public safety and free public education, provided by the government and paid for by taxes. When we pay our own taxes, we are just returning the gift given to us by those who came before.

We’d all like to think we can take care of ourselves. Dependence on anyone, family or social services, is no fun. Ultimately it is humiliating. We lose confidence that we are worth anything to anyone, even ourselves. We get depressed. We drink. We do drugs. We do stupid, self-destructive things. Is that a choice we make, or do we just walk out of the unemployment line and keep putting one foot in front of the other until at last we are completely lost?

I don’t think even the least charitable among us cares if someone else privately helps a person in need. Many don’t want to be told they have to help, though. They don’t want their tax money spent on people they suspect are just milking the system. They might be paragons of personal charity. They might volunteer in soup lines. They might be the first to stop and help a stranger change a flat tire. But they want to see the need with their own eyes, and they want to choose for themselves whom to help.

None of us wants to be told what to do by a government we’re pretty sure is bloated and inefficient, maybe even corrupt. This is the vein, black as coal, the Tea Party mines. This feeling that our government has lost touch with us, that it is working for someone else, and using our money to do it.

But the solution can’t be found on some Western movie set where everybody is ruggedly independent and fends for himself. In today’s complex and crowded world, we are all bound together by not only our common aspirations, but by our common needs for security, education and livelihood. The answer is not to tear down the creaky old house that shelters us, but to remodel it.

The Opportunity Center is a good example of just such a remodeling project. It was funded by a combination of government and private grants. It has both paid and volunteer staff. Law students from Stanford volunteer their time to help people navigate government and private programs for housing and employment. The Palo Alto Medical Foundation provides free medical and psychiatric care. A year or so after the Opportunity Center opened, my son Christopher wrote an article for his high-school newspaper about a new city police department plan to focus more on helping the homeless than arresting then.

So, if the Opportunity Center is a model of compassionate and effective joint governmental and private action, how does one explain the negative comments above? Hard to say. Perhaps those people are bigoted toward the poor. Perhaps they are afraid they could end up like that themselves. Perhaps they are just selfish.

I don’t think they speak for most of us, though. Almost everyone now is frustrated with government. That frustration and the related sense of powerlessness can lend appeal to simplistic fixes like Grover Norquist’s stated objective of shrinking the federal government down to the size that can be drowned in the bathtub. That makes a clever sound-bite, but it is ridiculously impractical.

Private enterprise will not meet all our basic needs. There just isn’t enough profit in fire, police, roads, education, the electric grid, clean water or social safety nets. If we want to take care of ourselves, we’re going to have to do that most American of all things: roll up our sleeves and get about the business of repairing government at all levels, so that it not only meets our needs but can be trusted with our money.

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