The "What About Me?" Syndrome

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Michelle Singletary
Thursday, March 5, 2009; 12:38 PM

I will not apologize for having compassion. And despite the onslaught of blistering e-mails I received after my column on Sunday, no, I have not turned away from my mission of preaching personal responsibility.

In that column, I criticized people who are complaining that those who managed their money well they aren't getting a piece of the bailout pie.

If you haven't read the column yet, take a look now: Hush. You Don't Need It (Mar. 1).

I have been writing my column on personal finance for more than a decade and I have always pleaded with people to live below their means, avoid debt and buy only what they can afford. Again, I have not strayed from that mission. So I understand when people are ticked-off that the responsible ones have to foot the bill to rescue the economy by providing mortgage modifications.

It's true that many people who were irresponsible are receiving help. It's also true that many people getting help are failing even after doing everything right. The problem with this particular crisis is you can't really help the latter without assisting the first. It's a dangerous slope to slide down when we become so righteous that we lose compassion for those who fall, even those who were irresponsible.

In response to my WAM column, I've received more than 200 e-mails (and they are still coming in every day) from readers across the country, many who only want to be their brother's keeper if the brother is deemed worthy of assistance.

"I, as do many Americans, have a problem with who is benefiting from this government largess at my expense," wrote Lars Sibley of Huntsville, Ala. "As long as someone shows high standards of personal responsibility, I have no problem showing my civic responsibility and offering a helping hand."

"I was shocked and appalled at your condescending attitude toward people opposing Washington's mortgage bailout plan," wrote Dennis O. McGee of Arnold, Md. "My opposition to the bailout plan mirrors that of my friends; we refuse to reward those who made poor decisions. Yes, we saved, we did our research, we refused to cash out the equity in our homes, and we did not buy more than we could afford. In short, we did the responsible things to ensure our economic safety and well-being."

I look at it this way: When a fire station receives a call for a burning building they don't question who was at fault to decide which home deserves to be saved. Firefighters risk their lives and the government spends public funds to extinguish fires at homes or buildings set ablaze regardless of whether the fire was the result of someone's neglect, negligence, or stupidity.

Should firefighters only fight fires for people who deserve to have their homes saved? No, they try to put out the fire at the one house to also prevent the flames from licking out and burning neighboring buildings.

I don't agree with many provisions in the stimulus package however I understand helping many people to avoid foreclosure is the right thing to do for them and for the rest of us. Others who responded to the column understood I wasn't trying to squelch the frustration about the mess we are in but instead explain the concept of grace.

Sue Monahan of Bozeman, Mont., wrote: "Sure, I made good decisions in the last 20 years. But I made my share of blunders too. I didn't save as much as I could have for retirement. I lived without an emergency fund for too many years. That doesn't make me righteous. It makes me blessed."

Ellen Scheel of Dover, Del., said: "God bless you for challenging and encouraging us to stop whining. Truly, an attitude of gratitude for all that we have will move us-as individuals and as a nation-past this temporary economic situation."

"It is easy to feel selfish and slip into the 'what about me?' mode when I read about the various 'Main Street' parts of the stimulus," wrote Peter Goering, of Silver Spring, Md. "But you are right. I have a job (that I like, too!), health care, heat in my home, a roof over my head, food on my table, an easy way to get to and from work, easy access to a computer, a supportive family and community. I have plenty. My hope is that I and others can feel a sense that what is happening with much of the stimulus is to benefit the community and country as a whole, and not just focus on me as an individual getting 'my share.'"

Wiley Hall, a former columnist for the Baltimore Sun and a friend, wrote:

"On this issue, I always think about the prodigal son from the Bible. You know the story: two sons, one stayed at home and worked and built his father's estate, the other went out and squandered his inheritance on wine, women and song. When the prodigal son came home ruined, his father welcomed him with a party, causing the good son to complain that the prodigal got all the breaks... The good son reaped the benefits of staying home: he had a home, a family, the esteem and respect of his neighbors; yet, he envied his ruined brother's party - as if that party was equal to, or better than, all those benefits. Similarly, as you point out, people who lived within their means have a stable home, they are better able to weather the current economic crisis, they can make sustainable decisions about their future, and they avoid all the stress and turmoil that comes with being in over their heads in debt. Yet they envy those ruined families simply because we are trying to cushion their downfall."

As asked on the On Faith blog, the question comes down to this: In tough times, do those of us who handled our finances responsibly have a moral obligation to bail out those of us who didn't? Are we our brother's keeper economically?

Read what a panel of religious experts had to say:

* It's Not Only Moral To Help Your Neighbor, It's Smart

* Charity is a Just and Ethical Obligation

* Cain and Abel's Mortgage Company

* Charity and Responsibility Begin at Home

* Even When Our Brother is a Loser

* "Forgive Us Our Debts..."

* Care For One Another, But No Coddling

Taxes: Live Chat Next Week

Jim Dupree, IRS spokesman for Maryland, Virginia and the District , will help me answer your tax questions next Wednesday. Please note the chat is a day earlier than my regularly scheduled Thursday discussion. So if you have a tax question or your confused by any of the new tax provisions passed in the recent stimulus package, join me live next week at Noon ET on March 11.

The Color of Money Question of the Week

The economy has hit another sector hard -- the dating scene.

It's not easy dating when you're broke reports Tara Bahrampour in Market for Romance Goes From Bullish to Sheepish (Feb. 25).

"From investment bankers to real estate developers to construction workers, no job means no buying rounds of $15 martinis for a pretty woman and her girlfriends," Bahrampour writes.

Neil Welsh, 27, used to make six figures as a marketing director of a real estate company. He used his financial situation as dating leverage. He can't anymore. And, Natalie Huddleston, a 27-year-old marketer at a law firm, has put dating on hold. She said men ask her out much less.

So, here's this week's question: How should you communicate your brokenness to your date? Send your comments to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please put "COM Question of the Week" in the subject line.

Will the Government Help with Your Mortgage?

Consumer legislation made headlines Wednesday when the Obama administration officially launched its plan to help millions of homeowners pay their mortgages by releasing guidelines to their massive foreclosure prevention program. The program includes a refinancing program for homeowners with little equity in their homes and a loan modification program to help those at risk of losing their homes. "It is expected to help up to 9 million homeowners lower their mortgage payments," Washington Post staff writer Renae Merle wrote.

"After being criticized when the program was announced last month for not addressing home equity lines or other second mortgages held by homeowners, which often become stumbling blocks for mortgage-modification programs, the Treasury Department said it would include additional incentives to help lenders extinguish those second liens," she wrote.

See if you may qualify for these new programs by taking our interactive questionnaire. Merle also hosted a live discussion today with Marietta Rodriguez, director of National Homeownership Programs at NeighborWorks America. Be sure to check out the transcript. Here's an example of one of the questions:

Bennett Point, MD: I paid off my 30 year mortgage in 16 years by spending responsibly (I drove a truck for 375,000 miles) and not buying too much house. Why can I not get a subsidy from President Obama for acting responsibly rather than foolishly?

Renae Merle: Why do you need a subsidy? It sounds like you're doing great! Seriously, I know there are a lot of people who feel this way. They sacrificed to make their mortgage payments and acted responsibly and feel like people who didn't are being rewarded. You are not alone in your frustration.

For additional information and resources on the foreclosure programs, read our special report.

Eating Down Your Budget

With Dow Jones dropping below 7,000 points this week, many people may tighten their seat beats for what could be a long ride on the rough waters of the financial crisis. If you are are frightened by these economic times, you're probably combing through your budget in search of things to scratch off the list. So, this week, Mighty Appetite blogger Kim O'Donnel is challenging you to draw a line through your groceries.

Her "Eating Down the Fridge Challenge" is encouraging people to do just what the title implies. Challengers pledge to break from food shopping for a week and use up what's in their fridges, freezers and pantries. Readers from as far as South Africa and Denmark have already signed up to her EDF Honor Roll. Participants can share their thoughts and experiences on the EDF Facebook Group page. Next Thursday at 1 p.m., O'Donnel will host "Stump the Cook," an online chat to give cooking advice for those hoping to cut their grocery costs.

You are welcome to e-mail comments and questions to singletarym@washpost.com. Please include your name and hometown; your comments may be used in a future column or newsletter unless otherwise requested.

Charity Brown and Yamiche Alcindor contributed to this e-letter.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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