Wednesday 6 February 2013

Using My Own Legs Like A Sucker

Ever notice how quickly people get bent out of shape when they think someone is "cheating" on the rules of life?

Granted, not everyone goes to Homer Simpson's extreme ("It's a wheelchair, Mr. Simpson."  "And here I am using my own legs like a sucker.") but it'll bring out resentment and moral judgment faster than anything else.

I read The Girl's Guide to Homelessness by Brianna Karp, a log of the year she spent living in a trailer in a Walmart parking lot.  She talked about how people would get upset or claim she wasn't really "homeless" because she had a computer and cell phone, or would occasionally go to a movie.  Never mind that she used the computer to search for jobs and email resumes and the cell phone so that employers could contact her.  She faced a lot of judgment from people who thought she should spend every waking moment in contemplation of her circumstances and not be wasteful.

I've seen similar outrage at perceived injustice.  A family was receiving significant aid for their children's therapy and went on a two week Disney cruise.  Immediately, people were very quick to cry abuse of the system.  Except as details came out, it turned out they had saved for seven years to do the cruise.  Does accepting outside help suddenly mean people are no longer entitled to have fun or enjoy life?  Must they be trapped in a dour, luxury-free existence so that charitable givers can feel better?

I think part of this comes from a certain Puritan work ethic which looks suspiciously on "fun" and "play" as a part of life.  Such things should only be permitted after an acceptable level of work has been done.  It also plays into the stereotype of the "worthy poor" where we don't want to be suckers supporting freeloaders.  If we're going to help, we want to feel good about it afterwards.

This fear leads to a lot of bureaucracy and rules which handicap those who are actually trying to get back on their feet themselves.  When Dave had cancer, we were told by numerous charities that they would help with the months we expected to have no income.  Except when we actually applied, we were told that we weren't needy enough.  If we'd been behind on our mortgage or about to have our utilities cancelled, they would help.  I refrained from pointing out that if we'd have been in such a situation it would not have been because of the cancer.  They wouldn't help us to prevent disaster, but only provide minimum help in picking up the pieces afterwards.

I could make a lot of arguments about how that approach isn't cost-effective or beneficial to society.  But that's not really the point.  The point is to avoid looking bad or stupid in public by having possibly provided help to someone who didn't deserve it.

Income caps are another pet peeve.  The headline looks bad when a family making 80k a year is on financial assistance.  Of course, the math of autism treatment (30-50k per year multiplied by two) shows that we are stretched beyond reasonable expectations.  We're not ripping off the system.  Not to mention, we're the sort of productive, help-ourselves types who will pay back society's investment.  But it looks bad and so no one wants to touch it.

There is a flaw in our thinking when someone who decides to spiral into debt without any thought on how to pay it back is somehow considered a safer charity choice than those who are trying to climb back out of an unexpected pothole and not be a burden on society.

It boils down to mutually reinforcing problems: 

There is no way to make a bureaucracy fair, since it will invariably allow cheats into the system and exclude worthy people on technicalities. 

A case-by-case system without criteria other than individual judgment allows far too much personal abuse. 

It's always possible to spin a situation so that it sounds acceptable or unacceptable in a headline or soundbyte.

Maybe the only real solution is to stop worrying about people taking advantage of us and accept it as part of the cost of helping those who need it.  Or even more radically, not judging those who need help, period.

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