Saturday, July 2, 2011

In Praise of Social Security and Welfare

Story Number One:
An eight year old girl spends every day of her life subject to seizures. Sometimes, she would experience a dozen a day, making any kind of normal childhood impossible. She cannot go to school, or play dates, or sleep overs. The doctors have no answers, though they try every drug they know to relieve the symptoms. The approved treatments are useless. The parents are getting desperate.

They stumble on a report that says stem cell treatments may provide a permanent solution to the seizures. However, the treatments are not available in the U.S., and the insurance company will not pay for a trip to Germany. The total bill for the first round of treatments is expected to be around $40,000, but it may as well be $40 million as the parents are strapped and already deeply in debt. What to do?

There are no government agencies to turn to. No programs. No institutions. No charities. The family is all alone with their plight, it seems.

Not entirely. The parents put out a call for assistance. They organize events for family and friends, and friends of friends, to attend and help pitch in toward the little girl's treatments. Through extended connections with hundreds of people, some of whom only have a passing connection with the family, donations start coming in. Event upon event the bank account grows until the total amount needed is assembled.

The little girl goes to Germany, receives treatment for two weeks, and comes back to the U.S. No more seizures. She begins to make developmental progress. She has a chance at a real life.

Story Number Two:
An elderly woman is living alone a dozen miles from the nearest town. She has been blessed with a lifetime of good health, but she is beginning to feel the frailty of her years. One evening, during a particularly bad snowstorm, she has the overwhelming feeling of being trapped and experiences her first panic attack. Since all of her grown sons are out of town, she calls the one who is driving a truck somewhere in Midwest and asks for help. The son calls a neighbor who then runs a snowplow through the old woman's driveway to help ease her mind. When a fuse blows that night, another neighbor stops by to change it. A third neighbor stops in with some cooked food. The woman's mind is eased, her house is lit, and her food needs are met.

The Web of Connections:
In both stories, it was the rich web of social connections that identified the need, assembled the resources, and solved the problem. One was a sustained event that took months to complete, the other was an instant problem that needed prompt attention. Human beings, one at a time, some with only a minor relationship with the victims, stepped up to fill the gaps until the needs were met. No institutions or government programs were contacted, applied to, or enlisted to assist. This was man helping man.

I tell these stories partly because we forget that real social security comes from our social network. We can, and often we do, watch out for one another. That natural compassion that we all (except perhaps sociopaths) feel for each other is our surest, most effective, and most dependable form of security. Government programs can be cut, modified, re-defined, understaffed, defunded and otherwise made unreliable, but the human social network is always there. Indeed, the social network doesn't take a day off. Nor does it have application fees or waiting periods. There are no queues, nor are there waiting lists. The network does not rely on one politician, or one bureaucrat. The network is a sticky web of intersecting concern and compassion by an unknown and unknowable number of people.

The network of social security and welfare has one vulnerability, however. It is susceptible to apathy, the feeling that it's not my problem...that's what we have (name your favorite institution) for. The more powerful the institution (the Church, United Way, the Federal Government) the more apathetic the network. An apathetic network of friends and family is like having no friends or family.

The irony of a compassionate people setting up institutions, especially government institutions, is that it tends to remove the need for the individual to act on behalf of a person in need. Let the government do it, we think. That's what we pay taxes for. But then little girls aren't sent to Germany for needed treatment, and old women don't get their driveways plowed out, their fuse changed, and a hot meal delivered to them late at night.

Privately funded organizations, like the United Way, at least have private commitment to their missions to help people. While an individual contributor may feel that 'they gave at the office' when their assistance is most needed, it takes a conscious effort to agree to support them and their mission. In a pinch, contributors may be tapped to give some more, or to volunteer, or assist in some other way. Government run institutions do not have public participation. They are funded by forced extractions that are often resented by the taxpayers, and they exercise their power rigidly and bureaucratically. They form a wide grid that, while very sturdy, has major gaps between the girders. What's more is that the typical taxpayer comes to believe the government institution has plenty of resources at its' disposal, no matter how meager that funding really is or how dire the needs really are. The people, though concerned about their fellow man, become apathetic about becoming personally involved. The web is no longer sticky. It becomes slick with apathy and needy people start falling through.

Ironically, if there were fewer institutions, and in particular government programs, to deal with human problems, we would naturally have to watch out for each other more. Each and every one of us would become another sticky strand of the network that would catch people as they fell. True caring. True compassion, and determination to use it.

That is what I call real social security.

I wonder how my neighbor is doing...I haven't seen him for a while.

(p.s.--both stories are 100% true)