I think one of the biggest things that divides our nation is our perception of poverty.
On the one hand, some believe those who receive government assistance are all lazy, scamming the system and making very large incomes off the government. All of them. Every single one.
This perception is based on stories. We’ve all heard the stories, sometimes passed along in person, often over the Internet. The “welfare mother” having babies just to get more money. The man on SSI making over $100,000 from the government. The man on disability with a fake back injury, golfing every day instead of working.
On the other hand, some believe everyone on government assistance is a victim of circumstances beyond their control. Everyone.
This perception is also often based on stories, but stories that are closer to home. A friend or relative, or the friend of a friend, loses a job or suffers a chronic illness that begins a downward spiral. They just can’t catch a break, no matter what they try. They just continue to sink into a hole that is insurmountable.
The truth, of course, is in the middle of these two extremes, and it is easy to see that, once we slow down and give it a little thought.
There are many, many people receiving some kind of government assistance, and, of course, there are some who are scamming the system. And, of course, there are some who genuinely need the help.
Back in 2006, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a fascinating article for The New Yorker titled “Million-Dollar Murray.” In it he touches on our common, mistaken perception that all people living in poverty are the same.
The article focuses on Murray Barr, a homeless man in Reno, who was an alcoholic and had multiple health issues. Just problems upon problems, and so much so that he often ended up in the emergency room several times a week.
In one six month period, it was estimated Barr had run up a bill of a $100,000 at just the smaller of the two hospitals in Reno. That didn’t take into account his likely larger bill at the larger hospital, and the cost for ambulance and police service.
The article goes in several different directions, but one of the main points is that a small group is often consuming a huge amount of government assistance.
The article also talks about a researcher who spent seven weeks in a homeless shelter, and then returned a few months later, and couldn’t find any of the people he had stayed there with. It was all new people.
The research showed there are the 10 to 20 percent of those in homeless shelters who consume a lot of resources, and a small group of them are the “Million-Dollar Murrays” who use a huge portion of the resources.
But they found something like 80 percent of people who stay in a homeless shelter stay for only one or two days. And then they never come back. They had something bad happen — lost a job or an apartment — and needed a little help to get back on their feet.
My point with all this is that there are many, many people on government assistance who are not there because they are lazy or because they are scamming the system. Many only need a little bit of help, for a short time, and then they will be back on their feet.
And do not think for a second that because a person has money they will make less mistakes with their life. Disease, job loss or addictions do not care how much money you have. But wealth does give a lot more options to endure those mistakes and not fall into poverty, whether it is an expensive treatment program, or help finding a new job, or just the cash for co-pays and medicine.
The cutting of the budget of a government assistance program because “all” those people are lazy or scammers is simply dishonest. Because a lot of people genuinely need those programs, and many for only a short time.
If you want to cut a program just to save money, then just call it that. Don’t paint all those in poverty with such a broad brush.
Reform of government assistance programs can be a noble effort. Make them better. Weed out the scammers. But that costs money too, maybe even more money.
And what of those “Million-Dollar Murrays” who consume a huge amount of resources and, realistically, may never get better and never not need assistance?
As Dorothy Day put it, “The gospel takes away our right, forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.”
And remember the original “Million-Dollar Murray”? Early one morning, a police officer called his wife weeping when Murray died. He had spent his whole career arresting Murray and taking him to the ER, and his wife, and ER nurse, knew Murray well, too.
He had been a deeply troubled, very sick man, that they had worked very hard to help without seeing any lasting results.
And he was also their friend.