Who should help penniless Americans?

Sad scenes on one of the most money-lined streets in the US raise questions about the role of the federal government

I work on one of the most power-filled, money-lined streets in the United States. Every day I’m sure I walk past power brokers, millionaires and “important people”. I’m assuming I do, but they don’t wear signs. Most of them have pretty nice clothes, so I take that as a kind of a clue. I also walk past an array of the saddest scenes, people who portray the absolute depth of human hopelessness.

I just came back from getting my overpriced coffee. I admit I don’t need to spend four dollars for caffeine and writing about this makes me realise that habit should probably stop and I should give more to charity. On my stroll, I noticed the two “occupy kids”, as I call them, were up and about. They are the two twenty-something white kids who have parked their un-showered but I imagine “revolutionary” souls in front of our building. They ask for cigarettes.

At the end of the block was an older white woman who had wrapped herself in a ball, her head covered by a stained and ripped overcoat. I had seen her drinking from a liquor bottle earlier in the day. I crossed the street against the light while most people stood and stared. I’ve never understood why people don’t cross if there isn’t any traffic. I think the social contract can survive a little rule-breaking now and then.

At the next corner hiding back against the doorway of a now closed store, stood an older black man who had the saddest eyes I’ve seen in a very long time. Twenty feet away an older white woman with holes in her shoes was dancing and singing. It wasn’t joy it was a clear case of delusions and mental illness. In front of my overpriced coffee shop, sitting on the ground with his bare ankles exposed sat a young white man, his hair neatly trimmed. He held up a cardboard sign that read, “veteran, please help”.

I had to write this because I am so overcome by the strangeness of this scene and my feelings about it. Every time I pass someone who is so desperately in need, I ask myself, should I help? I’ll sometimes offer food or money, but is it making a difference? What does it mean that in this developed country that is consideredthe world’s super  power, that so many of my fellow Americans find themselves penniless on this street of millionaires? I can’t help but wonder if helping these people is the role of the government. Is that a basic tenant of the real social contract, that we will pay our share of taxes to the government if they promise to help those who have not been as blessed or lucky as the rest of us?

I realise, you can’t help everybody, some people don’t want it. What I do know is the safety net in this country has too many holes in it and I’m wondering what will happen to it as the politicians fight over federal spending.

If you read the insider reports from this two-year debate, they often sit around their big table and throw out numbers: 200 billion from medical care, this many tens of billions in social services, x amount from defence. I think they’ve jumped the gun. I know time is short, and a “cliff” is coming, but maybe we should stop and talk about what we want our government to actually do for us.

That is what this last election was supposed to be about. It wasn’t really it was about the candidates, campaign ads and talking points. The politicians didn’t have a real debate about the role of the federal government. It’s time they did more than talk about the generalities of self-reliance and a “country that thrives together”. I would suggest we/they sit down and decide what role the federal government should have in our lives? Should the government take care of these sad souls, or should I? If you tell me it is solely my responsibility, then I will have the answer to the question I ask every time I see them. Decide that, and the budget numbers might get a little bit easier, one way or the other.

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