The holidays are over, and now it's back to business as usual. It's time once again for segments of our population to regard economic assistance to the poor as a socialistic welfare scheme that reduces self-esteem on the part of the recipients, teaches them to be indolent and dependent on hand-outs, and confiscates the discretionary income of people who are already taxed nearly to death.
Now, last week was different. There was a spirit of generosity in the air. Toy and food collections were omnipresent. Bell-ringers graced the sidewalks of a thousand grocery stores. One local businessman and his partners brought more than 100 families together in a shopping center parking lot, handed out turkey dinners and gift cards to local merchants, and even brought in Santa Claus via helicopter.
I was there (no, not as a recipient, but as a representative of a participating non-profit agency that helped identify deserving families). Nobody I talked to expressed any concern that such giveaways would have a negative impact on the beneficiaries' self-esteem. What I observed was quite the contrary -- people seemed exceptionally appreciative of being considered "special," if only for a few hours. Some of them returned, immediately after the event, to their jobs paying little more than minimum wage. One such person, a grandmother whose son was incarcerated and who had taken in her grandchildren to care for them, looked forward to cooking them a nice meal and putting a present or two (probably clothes) under the Christmas tree.
I have mixed feelings about all this holiday cheer. On the one hand, I feel it's somewhat hypocritical to claim to really care about people but oppose funding for a well-designed welfare program that keeps the unemployed out of abject poverty until they get back on their feet. On the other hand, maybe caring about less fortunate people about 2% of the time (1 week out of 52) is better than nothing. Sometimes, feeling special for a few hours gives you hope that life will eventually get a little easier.
Happy New Year, everyone! And please don't wait for Christmas 2010 to exhibit your generous spirit.
P.S. I do not intend by any means to imply that the particular people associated with the event I describe above oppose government assistance programs. I do not know them well enough to make such a statement, and I have evidence that they do in fact engage in philanthropic activities throughout the year. I do believe, however, that many people behave in the manner suggested above. Otherwise, how do we explain the outpouring of goods and services during the holidays and the reluctance at all other times of year to spend government resources to establish a high quality safety net?