Defining Neediness

Most people agree that the government should help the needy. That consensus falls apart only when we realize that we must define the needy. Not being able to feed one’s family certainly qualifies, but how about not having a car?

Does a lack of access to the Internet constitute neediness? A few years ago, social media started filling up with outraged complaints about “Obama phones,” a supposedly new program in which welfare recipients got free cellphones. (This was actually an update of an old program that helped subsidize phone service for low-income households.) We can easily think of food and clothing as necessities, but we can be stingier about providing “modern conveniences” to all, even though it can be impossible to find and then keep a job these days without being constantly tethered to the Internet.


A more recent controversy involved 25,000 public-housing tenants whose incomes had risen above the level that qualified them for government subsidies. Some federal housing officials initially defended keeping upwardly mobile tenants in public housing. One wrote, “There are positive social benefits from having families with varying income levels residing in the same property.”

But the political consensus is that families who move up the ladder must be evicted. They are no longer needy, and they don’t deserve a break on their rent. But if they become homeowners, they can get a tax break in the form of the mortgage interest deduction. By the rules of American politics, any family that discovers homeownership to be more expensive than anticipated is considered highly needy.

Is someone needy because he or she cannot afford to attend college? Lots of Americans think so, including President Obama and Hillary Clinton, the presidential candidate who said, “College is supposed to help people achieve their dreams” as she announced a $350 billion plan to help reduce tuition—and, thus, student debt—at public colleges and universities.

We would quickly run out of compassion in this world if we tried giving it to everyone who couldn’t achieve their dreams. And while a college degree greatly widens employment opportunities, a massive program to reduce student-loan debt may not be the most direct or efficient way to lift people out of poverty.

Even a confirmed big-government proponent like the former labor secretary Robert Reich is dubious about the value of such an effort, writing on his blog: “America clings to the conceit that four years of college are necessary for everyone, and looks down its nose at people who don’t have college degrees. This has to stop. Young people need an alternative. That alternative should be a world-class system of vocational-technical education.”

Mrs. Clinton is unlikely to suggest shifting resources to trade schools, nor are many other presidential candidates. The most reliable voters and campaign contributors are in the middle class, and they are not looking for alternatives to a college education. Holding down tuition costs and student-loan debt would certainly benefit many Americans who are seeking a way out of poverty, but this would be a spillover (trickle-down?) effect. The political objective is to help people who express a need (lower college costs) but are not necessarily the neediest in our society.

The neediest have trouble just showing up on political radar, and, to be fair, government policies are not the only way to provide them with assistance. This fall, Danny Meyer, a New York restaurant owner, banned tipping at his restaurants, instead paying staff entirely through menu prices, and his private-sector innovation has a lot to do with relative neediness.

Mr. Meyer told The New York Times that over the past three decades the income for waitstaff has gone up by 200 percent while the income for kitchen workers has risen by only 25 percent. Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker explained, “All the big tippers buying overpriced Bordeaux and giving the waiter twenty per cent, in other words, is of no help to the kid in the kitchen chopping onions for (relative) pennies.” The visibly needy—the tired-looking, perspiring waitstaff running around to please customers—get our notice, while those toiling in the back for less pay don’t cross our minds.

Helping the needy should be a major issue as we head toward the next election. Our biases about who qualifies as needy should also be part of that debate.

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Joseph J Dunn
3 years 4 months ago
Sullivan raises an important point. Candidates (well, Democratic candidates) offer competing proposals for college tuition assistance,debt relief, etc. But where are the competitive proposals, including radically different models, to address school systems with 40% drop-out rates and graduates who lack basic literacy skills, producing our national illiteracy rate of 14% (vs. Denmark's rate: one percent). The connections between illiteracy and unemployment, incarceration, and chronic dependence on public assistance are well documented. How do we assure that more of our children take that first step out of neediness, and become literate? "We can even say that economic growth is dependent on social progress, the goal to which it aspires; and that basic education is the first objective for any nation seeking to develop itself. Lack of education is as serious as lack of food; the illiterate is a starved spirit. When someone learns how to read and write, he can progress along with others…literacy is the first and most basic tool for personal enrichment and social integration; and it is society’s most valuable tool for furthering development and economic progress." Populorum Progressio, No. 35.
Mike Evans
3 years 4 months ago
Mr. Dunn needs to just visit inner city schools which are jammed packed with minorities in substandard, rotting and inadequate facilities, often led by rookie principals and teachers who quickly burn out and opt for the 'burbs. It is clear that these schools do not respect either their pupils or their families. Besides, it it hard to learn advanced math and science skills when all one hears are the growls of hungry tummies.
Joseph J Dunn
3 years 4 months ago
Mr. Evans, Thanks for your response. Just to clear the air, I have visited a number of schools in both urban and rural areas where very high percentages of students qualify for free breakfast and lunch. And I have had long conversations with teachers and principals there. Some of the schools are successful, and others are not. That knowledge is part of the basis for my belief that a new model is needed in districts where schools are demonstrably failing to serve the needs of their students. Peace.
Mike Evans
3 years 4 months ago
Most of these "who is needy" commentaries are simply bogus excuses for our stinginess and erroneous judgment of others' plight. The real cure for most of those left behind is a fair living wages. And for those with illness and disability, no amount of lifting oneself up by bootstraps will work. Let's stop arguing about who is deserving and strive instead to brighten people's lives and extol their gifts as they do the best they can with what they have. It is not the noblese oblige of snobby rich that determines the amounts to be given. It is the basic cries of humanity that the Lord hears clearly.
Brian McDonough
3 years 4 months ago
If you want to read how Papal mainstream Francis is, consider reading the 600++ page text, PAPAL TEACHINGS ON ECONOMIC JUSTICE which is found at the very, very bottom of this page: If you want to read how Biblically mainstream" the PAPAL TEACHINGS ON ECONOMIC JUSTICE are, consider watching and listening to [music] the following 4 YouTube videos: Francis is as Communist, Marxist, Liberal and Progressive as the Old Testament, the New Testament and at least 9 Popes before him.
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 4 months ago
We are all needy. We are all insecure and need to know that we are worthy and loved. Until we can know our own deep insecurity and need for love, we will never be able to respond to it in others.


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