Tuesday, April 25, 2006

It’s About Time by Katie Dunne

A homeless man sits on the sidewalk of a bustling city street, holding a Styrofoam cup. His hair is gray and matted and his clothes are torn and ragged. He shakes the cup halfheartedly, and the few coins inside clink together. The man looks up, scanning the crowd. One after another they pass him: students, doctors, lawyers, businessmen. All too busy to take notice of their fellow citizen. “Not my problem,” they think as they walk by.

Sound familiar? This phrase, “not my problem,” seems to describe the attitude of many Americans toward the less fortunate. It’s so easy to overlook poverty, especially for those whose lives are never touched by it. As a society, we are reluctant to commit time or funds to the disadvantaged simply because it’s not our problem.

So whose problem is it? The single mother who works two full-time jobs to pay the rent and feed her children? The man who was laid off after dedicating thirty years of his life to a company that supposedly valued his work? The disabled woman who has no family and is living off the minimal income of social security?

Capitalism teaches us that every person is responsible for his or her own circumstances. Though this is not the ideal manifestation of capitalism, it has created a selfish mindset on the part of many Americans and because of this state of mind, we’d rather blame the poor for their condition than to examine the fundamental structural problems that cause poverty.

These people are underrepresented because they are not a valuable demographic to politicians. They don’t contribute a significant number of votes, making them easy ignore.

Those in poverty are not poor as a result of their own laziness or incompetence; they are poor because the system has failed them. The ideals of American society no longer apply to all Americans. The values of equality, charity, and opportunity have become subordinate to the agendas of major lobbying groups and politicians. The homeless and impoverished are given very few outlets, and limited means by which they can improve their lives. The government is not fulfilling its responsibility to this group and, as a result, poverty has become a vicious cycle.

All too often I hear the phrase “not my problem” in response to these concerns. It’s about time we reexamine the definition of representative government and give a voice to the voiceless. It’s about time we stop thinking as Democrats and Republicans or as members of a capitalist society and start thinking as human beings. Many of these people that we label as “poor” are lost without the helping hand of their fellow man. It’s about time we make poverty our problem.

Katie Dunne is a freshman double majoring in Political Science and Spanish. Katie is a newly elected Student Senator, the Chair of the ISS Appointments Committee, and one of my favorite people.


Anonymous john bambenek said...

Maybe the reason people think it's "not my problem" is because government insists on creating program after program to solve these probles (and interestingly never getting anywhere).

The reason people don't care is because government has made it their job and increased taxes accordingly, and yet somehow, keeps managing to fail. Maybe it's time government got out of the business so we can let people who have a chance at succeeding take care of business.

8:47 PM  
Blogger Brian said...


How'd that work out in the early 1900s?

Oh yeah, the Great Depression happened.


9:53 PM  
Anonymous Amanda said...

Bravo Katie! You've touched on a topic so very dear to my heart. It shouldn't be our job to make life easy for everyone, just easier. I get up in the morning and go to class because I know I'll learn something that might one day make a difference in the lives of those very people you talked about. Great job! I love you!

10:14 PM  
Anonymous Daniel J. Nugent said...


The problems/situations leading to the Great Depression were not related to poverty or spending on public assistance.

The Great Depression was the direct affect of a worldwide economic collapse, indirectly based off of an unfair and undiplomatic treaty to end the First World War. Another reason, an unstable American banking system and an ineffective, young Federal Reserve System that failed to recognize its power to end emergencies by flooding Wall Street with money. The final nail in the coffin was the Smith-Hawley Act, which was the highest tariff in history, leading to higher consumer costs and retaliation by foreign governments. (Few know this fact, but the Stock Market actually rebounded after the crash into early 1930.)

The solution included public assistance programs, a stable banking system with FDIC protections, and the Second World War.

It is simply rediculous to look at the Great Depression's causes and blame the lack of a national welfare system.

In response to the modern day solutions for public dependence, I do not have an answer. I suspect that balance is needed to determine an appropriate level of support. I have no problem with the public assistance function of township government in Illinois (one of three required functions), but I do have problem with abuses in the form of "welfare queens."


Daniel J. Nugent

12:29 AM  
Blogger Kiyoshi Martinez said...

Katie: "Not my problem sums it up." Since when does welfare and charity benefit me? The fact is, it doesn't.

I was born fortunate enough to attend school, have parents that worked hard for a decent wage and put me through college. And somehow the "human" in me is supposed to apologize for my distinct advantage over those who have what I don't? Frankly, I refuse to feel guilty about my "accident" of birth.

The fact is simple: there is a hierarchy and you will always have those on the bottom in any system. Capitalism puts the most amount of people at the top, instead of allowing everyone to live sub-standard lives. It's the lesser of the evils and a necessary one to maintain a quality of living for the majority. Social services undermines that effort and taxes unfairly businesses and individuals who are only doing what is logical and smart in "human nature," that is, advancement.

I can live with the fact that people in my own country are in poverty, as long as I am not living in it. While we can try (and yes, we have tried so very hard) to eliminate poverty and fund inefficient and failed programs, we are only kidding ourselves and wasting valuable resources that could go in more substantial places.

Why not take that money and fund education? Even the most liberal people will admit that education is the number one factor that determines and aides upward mobility. It provides opportunity and useful skills to build a vibrant economy. It will reduce crime rates and increase the number of participants in the democratic process. All of these are proven facts.

But no, some still want to blame "the American system" and plague it with false hopes and impractical ideas that bankrupt our best interests.

3:21 AM  
Anonymous tc said...

Nugent's absolutely right on the origins of the Great Depression.

I've got an interesting overview of this problem because of my age.

Prior to the Great Society and all of the Civil Rights Legislation in the 1960s, we had EXTREME institutionalized racism in America that you guys probably cannot sufficiently imagine--the only real difference between us and South Africa was the lack of "homelands" (although it was illegal in most of the Midwest countryside towns for blacks to be in town after sundown.)

However, the black family structure was intact, religion and morality were powerful forces for good and the prison population was much closer to the actual makeup of the outside population.

Now, 40 years after the War on Poverty, we find that there's not been a significant change in the inner city employment rates, the black family is in shambles, the pimp/ho culture is everywhere in popular culture and the prison population is disproportionately skewed towards blacks and Latinos.

This is in SPITE of institutional racism being reduced to a point I would not have believed possible in 1964.

The govenment programs did little good and in all likelihood did massive harm to an entire culture within our country.

I mistrust govenment a great deal.

A large percentage of the homeless have either addiction problems or mental illness.

Let me tell you a story:

Prior to about 1980, there were very, very few homeless in America and many, if not most of the ones who were were doing it voluntarily (moving from place to place looking for jobs, hippie wanderers, and so forth).

Where were the people then who now make up the homeless population? The economy certainly didn't make the difference because the inflation rate then was 18% and the unemployment rate was approaching 10%. The minimum wage was considerably lower and a higher percentage than the current 0.75% of hourly workers were earning it.

Many of the people who currently are on the streets were in a safe, warm, helpful environment.

They were called "Zone Centers", and they were funded by the Federal Government with some help from the State Government. The Center for our area was called the Adler Zone Center.

The police and medical authorities had the ability to take a person from the street that was clearly unable to take care of themselves for addiction or mental health reasons and involuntarily commit them to these Centers where they would be treated for their problems and then released as functioning members of society.

Two things happened in the 80s. In regard to these, both the liberals and conservatives are at fault.

First of all, citizen advocacy groups and the ACLU filed lawsuits demanding an end to involuntary incarceration in these facilities as imprisonment without commission of a crime. They won.

Secondly, the Reagan administration asked Congress to remove Federal funding for these Centers and turn the responsibility completely over to the states. Since the states could no longer use them effectively anyway, they chose to close them and dump their current patients out on the street.

The homeless population skyrocketed, in some cities growing by as much as a factor of 10 within months. The charitable institutions that helped with such things found themselves overwhelmed, and have been trying to catch up ever since.

Anti-poverty government programs are not going to accomplish much, if anything, concerning the homeless problem because the problem is not an economic one, but a libertarian and health issue.


8:55 AM  
Anonymous reed said...


"The ideals of American society no longer apply to all Americans."

That passage is so problematic it poisons the rest of your post. How you managed to pack a faulty premise and a faulty conclusion into such a short sentence, I'll never know.

10:08 AM  
Blogger Billy Joe Mills said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12:29 PM  
Blogger Billy Joe Mills said...

I second all of the attacks on Brian's misunderstanding of economics...but I still love him. Funny how that one sentence comment of his inspired so much to be written. A match, though small, an light whatever it chooses.....and Brian is hott.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Yeah, that comment was obviously glib and oversimplified. Probably deserved all the attacks on it.

I guess my ultimate point was that FDR's New Deal wasn't a terrible thing, and it was government intervention. I agree with Dan's ultimate conclusion that a balance has to be struck, since government can't obviously do everything. But it can and has done a lot: Social Security, for all its faults, brought any number of people out of poverty, and Medicare, for all its faults, provided any number of people with health care. The idea that government cannot or should not create some kind of minimal safety net and indeed that it is the ideal institution to do so does not strike me as being a fundamental misunderstanding of economics or morality.

2:32 PM  
Anonymous john bambenek said...


There are some people who think FDR's New Deal made the depression worse, or at least longated it. I haven't read it, so I live it as an object of research.

I am doing research on the efficiency of public welfare systems, I'll let you know when I'm done.

7:39 PM  
Blogger Josh Rohrscheib said...

BJM, Brian would rather light candles than curse the darkness, and i know his glow warms our hearts, TC and Katie D's too.

5:45 AM  
Anonymous Katie said...

John- Perhaps the reason that the government programs created to solve these problems have failed is because a majority of American people are unaware of them or do not support them. Look at the current problems with social security... or at Kiyoshi's comment.

I agree that perhaps the government should delegate this task to a more able body, or to people who have experience and knowledge in the field, but that means that funds and resources will have to be provided, funds and resources that are supported by taxes, and therefore objected to by a good deal of the population.

Dan- I obviously do not know nearly as much as you about the Great Depression, so I find it difficult to come up with a valid counter-argument. However, I would like to say that I, by no means, mean to defend the "welfare queens" that you mention in your comment. I'm aware of the corruption that exists in the current welfare system and that is why I think it needs reform.

Kiyoshi- "Noblesse Oblige."

I am not trying to blame any individuals for the poverty of the country. I think its a systemic problem that results from many factors, but that is largely influenced by the indifference of middle and upper class America.

9:31 AM  
Blogger Kiyoshi Martinez said...

I think its a systemic problem that results from many factors, but that is largely influenced by the indifference of middle and upper class America.

It's not indifference, it's the lack of benefits received for money spent. I don't mind paying taxes, as I use many government services and agencies. But what I do mind is paying into a system that doesn't work and also doesn't benefit me. In fact, I'm immediately disqualified from these programs that are institutionally designed to discriminate against me. Talk about injustice!

If you pay taxes, you should have a say in how your money is spent, and if the government is spending it on things you'll never use or that don't benefit you, there's a legitimate argument to be made against further funding it, or cutting funding altogether. I pay taxes and I vote, and last time I checked, middle-upper class America still pays the most amount of money into the system. Why is it that we can't have a choice in what our government spends it on?

I think it's rather funny you respond with a French quotation about social responsibility. Last time I checked, the socialism of France has led to massive protests over the lack of jobs and riots throughout the nation.

As I've said, capitalism works because it gets people to work. You can't just cut checks without it coming from somewhere and that somewhere is the pocketbook of middle-upper class America, who is still struggling to deal with a post-9/11 economy. Meanwhile, the corporate "giants" are taxed even more unfairly and that puts even more people out of jobs.

The Illinois economy is a perfect example of what not to do. We've driven businesses out of this state and the people haven't followed (other states that border us don't have the unemployment rate we do). We've literally taxed them out of business with our social programs and "noblesse oblige" to the point of mutual, statewide suffering.

Remember, every time your tuition goes up, every time you look at a crumbling Lincoln Hall, everytime you have $800 million backlog of deferred maintenance problems on this campus, it's because of the current administration's practice of "social responsibility" for upstate Illinois.

I'll end with a favorite quote: "I am a man who does not exist for others." - Ayn Rand

10:25 AM  
Anonymous tc said...

Kiyoshi, I'm afraid that you're wrong in regard to the taxes being paid in America.

Over 50% of the Federal Income Tax is paid by the top 10% of wage-earners in the country and over 95% by the top 50%. These numbers would preclude the middle class paying the majority of that tax.

The social security tax is paid evenly by hourly and salaried employees unless they are able to opt out. A LARGER percentage is paid by the self-employed professional, many of whom are above the middle class.

The sales tax is disproportionately tilted towards the wealthy paying more because in many states, food, clothing and medicine are not taxed and the wealthy spend a much higher percentage of their income on items that *are* taxed.

Capital gains taxes cover things like stock and property value-added. While the middle class has bought more stocks in the last decade than before, the upper class still has more total stock, often taking their retirement packages in their company's stocks (as the retiring head of Exxon did.)

The are a lot of folks in the lowest half of the middle class with children that only pay a bit of sales tax, gasoline taxes, cigarette taxes, real estate taxes if they own a home and social security taxes. Their contribution to the total tax burden of America's population is not significant.

This has led to an interesting situation where people who contribute virtually nothing to the public coffers can vote (and do) regularly for individuals who can spend money that the wealthier have disproportionally contributed.

Bread and circuses, anyone?


12:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tommy says...

Generally speaking... in America, even the poor aren't 'that' poor. I am a sociology minor and am constantly bombarded with programs to help distressed American communities like East St. Louis (where I volunteer), but I also see how programs in sub-saharan Africa or Guatemala work...

To be frank, my sentiments are that even the poor in America aren't, on a global scale, that poor. They have food, water, and shelter... Generally. I think there is much more room for development and quality of life improvements abroad than there are here... none the less, I still think it's necessary to empower communities that have been systematically oppressed by institutionally disadvantaging them through things like the 1934 Housing act which red-lined minority communities from their piece of the American Dream.

2 billion people in the world live on less than $2 per day. The threshold to find enough caloric intake is about $10 per day.

Much respect to the dialog,
Tommy, FAA Senator

3:06 PM  
Anonymous Katie said...

Kiyoshi- you say that you do mind tax money being spent on systems that don't work- so this is your problem. Your money is being spent in an attempt to "help" these people in a way that is historically ineffective.

Rather than opposing these social programs altogether, wouldn't it be more efficient to advocate for reform?

I agree that we should have a say in how our tax money is being spent, but it is impossible that every program funded will directly benefit us. We have to recognize the social responsibility of government to all Americans. Just because you do not benefit from a tax-funded program, you are not justified in opposing it.

Capitalism may work because it gets people to work, but it depends largely on the lower class population, working at minimum wage or lower, to operate effectively. There is no capitalism without a work force and it is that work force that I am defending.

One of your favorite quotes is "I am a man who does not exist for others."

Well what about the people who cannot even exist for themselves? What do you say to the mentally disabled who are not capable of caring for themselves, let alone defending their civil rights? Whose responsibility is it to look out for them? If it were up to you, it seems that they would be left out in the cold.

I find it appalling that you seem to have no compassion for the less fortunate. As you say, you were born "lucky," and while I do not blame you for this or discredit the hard work of your parents, I do think that there are those who can never have the opportunities that you or I have and that it is, therefore, our responsibility to represent them.

There are obviously flaws in the current welfare system and federal social programs, but simply ignoring an entire group of people just because we disagree with the politics of how they are being helped is outrageous.

In whatever language it was written, and in whatever political context it was formulated, I still stand by the principal of Noblesse Oblige- to those whom much is given, much is expected.

9:10 PM  
Blogger Kiyoshi Martinez said...

Rather than opposing these social programs altogether, wouldn't it be more efficient to advocate for reform?

My reform has been stated: spend the money on education. Pretty simple.

Just because you do not benefit from a tax-funded program, you are not justified in opposing it.

Why not? From a very individualist perspective, I can and should be opposed to things that don't benefit me that I don't pay for or provide a benefit to society as a whole. Social programs like welfare don't solve large problems and waste valued resources.

There is no capitalism without a work force and it is that work force that I am defending.

Then why not defend the corporations that provide jobs for the work force. Taxing them to death and out of business is not defending them and their ability to produce quality jobs for those who want to work.

If it were up to you, it seems that they would be left out in the cold.

I fail to see how this fact makes me a bad person, when it's my only duty to look out for my own interests.

I find it appalling that you seem to have no compassion for the less fortunate.

I find it appalling that people refuse to look out for their own interests and decide to bring others down because they are successful and living the great American dream.

I do think that there are those who can never have the opportunities that you or I have and that it is, therefore, our responsibility to represent them.

Represent them by providing them the proper tools to change their socio-economic status by getting an education, not just handing them a blank check because they made bad decisions in life.

simply ignoring an entire group of people just because we disagree with the politics of how they are being helped is outrageous.

It's not outrageous to want the best for oneself. It's not outrageous to use the tools of democracy to one's advantage. It's not outrageous to demand accountability for failures of the government. The government should work for me and my interests. That's how I vote.

Selfishness is an often underestimated virtue.

3:20 AM  
Blogger Professor Doctor said...

Katie -

I believe you are conflating welfare policy with economic mobility. Though the two are related, the lack of distinction is leading to left and right talking past each other on this board.

It's also worth noting that as the poor are a demographic just like anybody else, they do tend to vote a particular way, just like anybody else, and so politicians are likely to politicize their aid, just as with for anybody else.

Kiyoshi -

I take issue with your argument, not with regards to welfare policy (which I don't personally know enough about to judge), but rather your statements as they pertain to economic mobility. I would argue that the "taxing corporations to death" point is basically a canard, considering the burgeoning gap in this nation between the rich and poor. It's that gap that, as I see it, is both a cause and an effect of an economic policy which stands to dim our economic future.

Low tax rates across the board have led us to a massive budget deficit, which is still growing consistently. Those deficits mount, and weaken our economy on a large scale. At the same time, waiting til later to increase taxes makes the choice easier for corporations who may wish to export jobs in the future than to do so now, given the weakening of the economy.

On the other hand, working against the gap helps our economy and our society in a multitude of ways. After all, as the poor get richer, not only does their standard of living rise, but the economy as a whole reaps the benefits from a more equal distribution of money across the populace. (Note that I mean distribution in the statistical sense here.) And besides, economic mobility is itself a key ingredient of the American dream you tout - we ought to keep it around.

This may all seem like sour grapes from somebody who began in a lower economic quintile, but those are just my two cents.

12:35 PM  
Anonymous Katie said...

Jon- I don't mean to conflate these two issues, as they both deserve individual attention, but I find it hard to separate them as they are so fundamentally related. I'll try to be more conscious of this in future posts.

Kiyoshi- I respect that you and I have very different opinions about social responsibility, but you still haven't addressed one of my questions.

What do you propose we do about those who cannot help themselves? If everyone were to simply look out for their own interests, as you propose, how would these people survive?

I am not suggesting that we hand "blank checks" to anyone. However, I resent your statement that welfare benefits those who have made "bad decisions" in their lives, as if all those in poverty are somehow responsible for their circumstances.

As for "wanting the best for oneself," I think its possible to look out for your own interests, and to vote accordinly, but to simultaneously be concerned about the welfare of others. One does not necessarily exclude the other.

Can you reasonably expect the governemt to "look out for me and my interests" and to ignore all other parts of the population? There is a difference between using the tools of democracy to your advantage and expecting government to address only the issues that concern you. The former seems much more reasonable than the latter.

1:43 PM  
Blogger Don said...


A remarkable essay on poverty. If nothing else, you have raised awareness of this issue among the very people who walk past the impoverished with a blind eye.

How smug we all can be until we are the ones holding the cups.

12:05 PM  
Blogger Kiyoshi Martinez said...

What do you propose we do about those who cannot help themselves? If everyone were to simply look out for their own interests, as you propose, how would these people survive?

Simply put: let the government do nothing.

Before you call this cruel, take into consideration the positive aspects of this solution.

First, it removes a significant burden on the government. Resources are immediately freed up to service more effective government institutions and funding can go toward education in greater numbers where it can do more good.

Second, it removes incentive from the "poor" to rely on government handouts and move into the workforce. Companies will quickly create more, low-paying jobs once tax burdens are lifted from their shoulders.

Third, it is not cruel to not provide aid. Many of these social programs did not exist until The Great Depression, during which the majority of the population suffered extreme economic hardship and could benefit from such services. Nowdays, the majority does not benefit from these services, but yet we've managed to throw more money into them. The problem went away, but the programs did not. Kind of like the national income tax...

Fourth, I don't feel any more particular pity for the poor in American than I do for the poor in third-world countries. It's simple fact that we can't help everyone, unless everyone wants to be miserable and poor together. It's a sad fact, but why feel bad about something that isn't your fault or your concern?

We have to begin to accept the fact we were lucky with our circumstance and we should look to build futures that make sense from a logical standpoint. This means providing services for our society that everyone can benefit from in the beginning and has a merit based design. Those who want to succeed should be given the means to do so, and not held back because of others who fail to strive.

If my plan was implemented now, yes, you would have a generation or two of suffering in this nation, but in a few generations we would see a much more prosperous citizenship with economic opportunities that would be the envy of the world. Sometimes sacrifices need to be made for the greater good, and to get ahead and beat the poverty problem we have to take initiatives that require making tough decisions.

Doing the right thing doesn't always mean you're going to wake up the next morning feeling good about it. If you're looking for a clean conscious, join a prayer circle. But if you want to make a positive difference, cut your emotional strings and do what needs to be done.

3:13 AM  

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