Government efforts to aid people need people's aid

January 03, 1995|By WILEY A. HALL

My column first appeared in this paper exactly 10 years ago today -- on Tuesday, January 3, 1985. So, hoist one in my name.

In that first column, I told the story of an inner city family and their struggle to remain a family in spite of poverty, government bureaucrats and their own shortcomings.

Both parents were alcoholic and unemployed. The mother and her three oldest children lived in one of those shoe box-sized row homes on West Baltimore Street. The father lived with relatives when he was sober and on the street when he wasn't. Two of their five children had been declared "in need of assistance" by the state and placed in foster homes.

My story began shortly before Christmas. The mother had wanted to bring all five children together again for the holidays, but she hurt her case with social workers by appearing drunk at the foster home of her youngest child and demanding that he be handed over. Because of this behavior, the social worker assigned to their case refused to allow the youngest to join the others. The family then called the media -- me -- in hopes of exposing what they called the "injustice" of the department of social services.

My problem, of course, was that the decision seemed neither unfair nor inhumane, especially in light of the mother's behavior. On the other hand, here were people who possessed at least the basic ingredients in the making of a successful family: They loved each other. They wanted to be together. They were determined to do better by themselves.

So that was it. There were no heroes or villains in my first column, just a bunch of questions: Should we punish "bad" parents or help them? Can we build upon a family's strengths without reinforcing their weaknesses? And how much time and effort and money are we willing to invest pondering these problems; how many mistakes are we prepared to tolerate?

I have returned to those questions repeatedly during the past decade and still there are no clear-cut answers.

I agree in part with those conservatives who argue that individuals must take personal responsibility for their fate in this society, that no government program can compel people to straighten out their lives.

But I tend to agree more with those liberals who insist that government can and should give people the opportunity to try. Conservatives sneer at liberal efforts to help people, as "social engineering." But the right wing alternative -- punishing the poor, lambasting the lame and walloping the weak -- is social engineering as well, albeit with harsher effect.

Our society seems split by a fundamental difference in values. I believe that most people want to help themselves. The conservative right seems to believe that most people conspire to take advantage of our generosity. I believe that government can be used as a tool to open opportunities -- even for those who make mistakes. The conservative right prefers to wield government as a weapon of retribution.

Over the holidays, I got in contact with a member of the family I wrote about 10 years ago. The eldest of the five children, she asked that I not identify her family by name because many details of their personal history are "embarrassing."

But she said her family has "continued to struggle" these past 10 years, and has had its "ups and downs." For instance, this woman had been on probation for shoplifting in 1985. Today, at 29, she has an associate of arts degree in nursing and works in a home for the elderly. Her parents continue to struggle with alcoholism, but they are still married and now live together. All of her brothers, she said, are gainfully employed although the youngest remained in the foster care system until he was 18.

"Did government programs help your family get itself together or were they a hindrance?" I asked.

She was silent for several moments before answering. "That is really hard to say," she said at last. "Sometimes DSS definitely helped us. Sometimes the people there seemed to go out of the way to throw roadblocks in our way.

"In the end," she concluded, "I guess it was up to us to do what we had to do regardless of them."

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