We are a nation deeply divided on how best to address poverty.
On one side are folks, like me, who feel that a civil, caring society has a moral responsibility to fund anti-poverty programs.
On the other side are people who argue that it’s unfair that a share of their income — through taxation — subsidizes various federal and state entitlement programs that help people who became poor because they made irresponsible decisions.
We have to keep talking about this because divided we all fall. When readers disagree with me, I give them a chance to be heard in the Color of Money “Talk Back” feature. I received quite a bit of pushback on this month’s pick for the book club. I selected “Falling,” an essay by novelist and former Washington Post book critic William McPherson. (You can read it at http://bit.ly/Falling_essay .)
McPherson, who died last week at 84, wrote about his descent from being an acclaimed, well-paid journalist to poverty. He acknowledges that it all started with his decision to retire at 53.
“What happened?’ he wrote. “It was a long, slowly accelerating slide but the answer is simple. I was foolish, careless and sometimes stupid.”
I’ll stop right there. For more perspective, you have to read the essay. At any rate, here’s some of the reader feedback I received:
●“Life is about choices. One does not ‘fall into poverty.’ One walks into it with open arms.”
●“It is hard to determine exactly what type of economic obligation you believe people should be subject to with regards to the poor. Do you believe we are obligated to be ‘financial slaves’ of the poor? Success from hard work is the reward God gives us for our hard work and our personal responsibility. It is not a privilege. Poverty caused by irresponsibility is the reward from God for a life foolishly lived. There is nothing wrong with having mercy and being charitable to irresponsible persons. But we have no obligation to reward another person’s negligence by turning our assets over to that person.”
●“McPherson wasn’t poor until he made a very poor choice to quit his job to travel Europe with no job. Those of us who didn’t quit our jobs are now supposed to support him?”
●“I think you missed the point of McPherson’s story. He did not meet poverty. He chose it. Life is a series of choices. I chose to work until age 62. My brother, a doctor in Philadelphia, is still working at age 67 with no plans of retiring anytime soon. Why should my family, working long hours and making sacrifices, subsidize Mr. McPherson?”
●“Unfortunately, what we have today is no longer charity. It is a government that forcefully takes money from one (productive) person and gives it to another (unproductive) person.”
There is just so much to unpack in these comments. But there’s one assumption running through them all that is incorrect: Empathy does not equal endorsement.
“Too often, America has gone down the road of trying to shame those in need,” wrote Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their 2015 book “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America.”
Here’s a note I received from a woman in Michigan who admits she and her husband made mistakes: “I found myself relating to [McPherson’s] story and, in an odd way, comforted to know that we are not alone. We did what we thought was the best thing: live a life of service with little thought for our own financial future. I can’t say that I regret the years we chose to serve, but I do regret the lack of attention and forethought we gave to our finances.”
Advocating for anti-poverty programs does not mean you don’t recognize that some people getting help made poor choices. It doesn’t mean you absolve them of personal responsibility. People shouldn’t have children they can’t support. Retiring and then recklessly spending down your money is bad money management. But helping the destitute is the decent thing to do.
What do we as a society owe the poor?
We owe them empathy. We owe them a safety net that gives them a chance to get back on their feet — and maybe even survive.
A reader from Texas shared that sentiment: “Judgment of those in dire straits serves no one.”
I spend a fair amount of time working with people living below and just above the poverty line. And this I know: It’s no picnic being poor. They didn’t consciously choose to be poor. They didn’t willfully walk into poverty with open arms. They stumbled there.
Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to http://wapo.st/michelle-singletary.