I read a fascinating article in the New York Times yesterday titled “Kindness of a Stranger that Still Resonates.” The article described the kind and selfless acts of a successful businessman in the depths of the Great Depression during an era where charity was seen as a moral failure.
The secret philanthropist, Samuel J. Stone, published an ad under a pseudonym (“B.Virdot”) offering to give assistance to those who wrote him a letter describing their need and how they planned to use the money. He promised anonymity as the idea of accepting help in those days was much less morally acceptable than it is in our common era. A kind gesture, to be sure, and one that points to the power of people helping people.
I wonder what would happen if people in need were more industrious on the one hand and if those with means beyond their need were more generous on the other? Would the massive and costly governmental systems that mediate by way of tax dollars become obsolete?
A friend of mine who spent time in Puerto Rico told me that many of her conversations with locals said that they felt that the American welfare system was at the root of many of the problems in their country. Laziness, graffiti, unclean streets and neighborhoods were apparently less prominent prior to the implementation of welfare as the lack of a safety net served as incentive to get out there and work. Was this the only factor involved? I doubt it, but it does strike me as more than a coincidence.
The article went on to describe the current situation in Canton, Ohio, the town in which the article was published some 77 years ago:
Many people need such help in Canton. More than half the city’s children live below the federal poverty line, according to the Census Bureau, up from 38 percent in 2008. More than 3,000 people called the United Way for help in October, a 33 percent increase over last year, the agency said.
- In 2009, the family poverty rate and the number of families in poverty were 11.1 percent and 8.8 million, respectively, up from 10.3 percent and 8.1 million in 2008.
- The poverty rate and the number in poverty increased across all types of families: married-couple families (5.8 percent and 3.4 million in 2009 from 5.5 percent and 3.3 million in 2008); female-householder-with-no-husband-present families (29.9 percent and 4.4 million in 2009 from 28.7 percent and 4.2 million in 2008) and for male-householder-no-wife-present families (16.9 percent and 942,000 in 2009 from 13.8 percent and 723,000 in 2008).
- The poverty rate increased for children younger than 18 (from 19.0 percent in 2008 to 20.7 percent in 2009) and people 18 to 64 (from 11.7 percent in 2008 to 12.9 percent in 2009)
Is our present approach working? Relatively speaking, maybe, but in absolute terms, absolutely not! It’s easy to look the other way but sooner or later ignoring the problem only makes things worse. Far too many responsibilities that could be handled by caring, conscientious and wise individuals are passed on to the government and it seems to me that more often than not the solution to government becoming too big is for individuals to step up to the plate, as a whole.
If it is true that the sum of the part is greater than the whole, then the parts, when playing their part fully, actively and passionately, should be more effective at solving the systemic problems we face as a society, as a nation and as a world.