Saturday, April 16, 2011

Solution to the Public Nuisance

The Oregonian published a letter to the editor this past week by a woman who had moved to Portland the same year as me (2006). In the letter, she remarked how people seem too closed and unfriendly whenever she tried to say hello to strangers she passes by on the street. Her point was that we can improve each others day by smiling and saying hello to one another. While I agree with her sentiments, its far easier said that done.

I am guilty as charged. I'm quite guarded when I'm out in public. As an introvert, I'm not naturally gregarious nor do I find initiating conversations easy. I much prefer other people to initiate conversations. However, because it has happened too many times, usually when strangers initiate conversations with me, they want something from me. Whether homeless people begging for a few cents or a dollar, or some ACORN-employed young lady who is tasked with gathering signatures and addresses for whatever might be the issue of the day (or sometimes even money). I would actually welcome a conversation that did not end in someone asking me for money or my signature. I consider it an invasion of my space. So, that's why I tend to be guarded when I'm walking in public. I'm like a magnet for people and their needs.

The other day, during my morning commute, a guy in his 20s had asked me for 75 cents. I had the money and could have given it to him, but he looked fit, healthy, and certainly available to work. What's his excuse? He asked a few other people at the bus stop for the same 75 cents, but didn't have much luck, so he went across the street to the other bus stop to hit people up for spare change. When he returned to our side of the street, he had a cigarette in his mouth that someone must have given him. That act made me feel better about not giving him money. After all, if he's a smoker, he can't be broke because that's an expensive habit that he could eliminate in order to save money.

Last summer at Flicks on the Bricks in downtown Portland, while waiting for the movie to start, there was a man who walked around with a big sign telling people NOT to give money to street people. I was stunned to see this, as it made me think of the "Do Not Feed the Bears" sign at a zoo (or in the Yogi Bear cartoons). The sign explained that giving money to street people only encouraged them to beg more, which is a public nuisance. I inherited a trait from my dad that I'm quite happy about: a complete aversion to asking anyone for money. Like my dad, I think going around asking people for money is too much work and annoying. Why do people do it? I guess out of necessity, if they really need money. I am not inclined to give, though, because this is where my conservative personality comes into play. I always wonder if they are in the situation they are in because of a drug habit or alcoholism or some other personality defect that makes them unemployable. I'm in a low wage job with too much debt burden, so why should I help someone who might have been reckless regarding his or her life?

I have given money to some people on occasion. It always depends, though. I have no formula for what convinces me to give to someone when I don't give money to most people who request it. Something about the person's request has to strike me in a certain way to where I actually feel uncomfortable if I don't give. And this discomfort is not something that the other person might impose on me, but its more like a nagging feeling in the back of my head that this person could use some money. So, to get rid of that nagging feeling in the back of my mind, I'll give some money to the person making the request. This is rare, however. In my four and a half years in Portland, I might have done this only five times.

What is the best way to deal with this issue? Well, on a Facebook debate some time ago, a conservative Republican friend of mine stated the typical view of his mindset. This view wants no government services to the poor at all. Let private charities (churches and non-profit organizations) provide all services to the poor. I'm against this idea, because its much harder to track. Also, charities depend upon donations, which could rise or fall based on the economy. In recent years, the Oregon Food Bank has run out of food to distribute because so many families have fallen below the poverty line in the last years of the Bush error. Charities depend upon the generosity of donors, who have the power to decide not to donate one month or one year or to cut back on how much they donate. Another problem with private charities handling all the services to the poor is that some (particularly evangelical Christian churches) have an ulterior motive (proselytizing). Finally, because there are many different charities devoted to the poor, they are all competing for the same donor base in a given community and a homeless person could utilize them all, with no means of accounting between the different charities.

Conservatives don't agree with my view that government should absolutely provide for the poor. I'm of the view that our government should guarantee every American citizen this minimal safety net: one meal a day if they are hungry and unable to afford it; universal medical care; and a warm, dry place to sleep at night during the winter months (ideally, year round). Would this cost that much? By having such a "generous" minimal safety net, this would eliminate the need for beggers on the street. People can know that the homeless and the hungry are provided for and not have to feel bad about not giving money. Those who are homeless and hungry will know that they will always have one hot meal a day, so the desperation of having to beg people for money would not be necessary.

Basically, from what I understand about the conservative mindset, it is rooted in selfishness. The whole, "I got mine, so screw you!" mentality. In many debates I've had with conservative people over the past twenty years, they don't like the idea of one cent of their tax money going to pay for those who don't "deserve it" or who "leech off the system." President Reagan loved to bring up the "welfare queen" in his speeches...which in the mind of most conservatives is a big black woman in the ghetto driving a 1970s Cadillac, with a lot of children of different fathers, and going to the grocery store to buy lobster with food stamps. To the conservative, this is a greater threat to our government budget than a $10,000 toilet seat bought by the Department of Defense. Waste, fraud and abuse was committed by Enron, Halliburton, KBR, and the like. Millions upon millions of dollars, into the hundreds of millions. All the poor people in America don't cost as much as what our government spends on corporations and the military.

I don't get the conservative hostility towards the poor. I noticed this as an intern in Washington, D.C. in 2000. During our semester, we spent one Saturday doing a community service project at the main homeless shelter in downtown Washington. As we painted the hallway, we got to peek into some of the rooms that the homeless men lived in. These were tiny dorm-type rooms. Just a bed, a table, a dresser, and a closet. It allowed the homeless a warm and safe place to sleep at night, as well as keep his property locked up. They paid no rent and along with living in this shelter, they were able to get drug and alcohol counseling or job seeking help. After some of these conservative students saw their rooms, they complained later on (away from the shelter) that these people had it too good, living rent-free and not having to work to pay for it. A few of us liberals were stunned that these conservatives seemed almost jealous that the homeless people were getting something for free. Who wants to live in the homeless shelter? Sure, it was a lot nicer than I expected, but if you are able to work and provide for your own housing, that's even better. Why begrudge a jobless person the little dignity that some homeless shelter provides?

I think it says a lot about a person who doesn't think a homeless person should have his own room in a shelter without paying for it, yet believes its okay for a wealthy person to skimp out on paying taxes and live a lavish lifestyle while paying themselves annual bonuses even though the company finished the year in the red and they've had to lay employees off two weeks before Christmas. What kind of priorities is that?

At BYU, I learned in my Economics 110 class that if 100% of Americans were employed, inflation would skyrocket. According to economists, its actually beneficial to the country to have an unemployment rate around 3% or lower (so long as its not 0%). So, if this means that we must have some unemployment in order to keep inflation down, then aren't the homeless and jobless doing our country a favour? What's wrong with a portion of our taxes going to pay for services to the poor? I would much rather see my tax money help people less fortunate than myself than to go to the wealthy class who are doing far better than me. In fact, they should be helping me and people like me with their money, instead of stealing from us to continue their aggrandizing lifestyles.

Though I don't understand the conservative mindset regarding the poor (especially since many of them claim to be Christian, even though Jesus often criticized and condemned the wealthy and preferred to hang out with the outcasts of society), perhaps a movie that opened this past weekend in select theaters will help me understand. Yep, that's right. The film version of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged has finally made it to theaters so that conservatives and libertarians can finally stop pretending to have read the 1,200+ page pedantic novel. Who is John Galt? A greedy bastard currently incarnated as Donald Trump, that's who! The movie might help me understand their mindset, but I can wait until its on DVD.

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