Which of us truly made it on our own?

September 29, 1996|By Elise Armacost

AMID ALL THE MONEY, clothing, toys, furniture and empathy showered last week on Walter and Mary Wyatt were a few harsh words and a raised eyebrow or two.

It's surprising, really, that there wasn't more criticism of the Wyatts, a Northeast Baltimore family that, until Sun reporter Lorraine Mirabella's story appeared a week ago and triggered a flood of contributions, faced foreclosure and homelessness.

Walter Wyatt suffered a job- related back injury and cannot yet work; his disability payments are tied up in court; and the federal program that used to protect families with Federal Housing Administration loans like the Wyatts' was killed by Congress last spring. The family has been subsisting on food stamps and welfare, and it has only enough income to make partial mortgage payments, which the bank has been unwilling to accept.

Bootstraps Brigade

Most readers were touched. They responded with so many offers to pay the mortgage that NationsBank halted foreclosure proceedings. Inspiring as this was, another reaction came from what I call the ''Up from Your Bootstraps Brigade.''

The Wyatts have a dog, for one thing. If you're in bad enough straits to need food stamps, why are you feeding a dog? wondered Karen Kwiatkowski of Odenton in a thoughtful, if a bit hard-nosed, letter to the editor.

They've also got an elderly aunt who occasionally helps out with baby sitting. Why can't she help out more? Why can't they move in with her? Ms. Kwiatkowski wondered if Mr. Wyatt, a Baltimore native, might have more relatives around the city. Why can't the family call on them?

And Mary Wyatt does not work. One angry caller told Ms. Mirabella that she took care of her siblings at age 9, and Mrs. Wyatt ought to be able to do something with her kids while she earns a paycheck. Others wondered why Walter Wyatt, despite being in a body cast, can't watch the children while his wife works.

Or, assuming that he's not in condition to chase a 3- and a 4-year-old and carry a 6-month-old, why can't Mrs. Wyatt work the night shift and take care of the children during the day?

Except for calling on relatives that do not exist, the Wyatts probably could do most of these things. They are trying not to because they feel it is not in the best interests of their family, nor necessary from the long perspective.

Rather than take away their childrens' pet, disrupt the life of an elderly relative, endanger their kids by leaving them with a father who can't move, or work Mrs. Wyatt around the clock, they decided to accept public assistance until Mr. Wyatt can return to his job or the courts settle their claim.

The needed safety net

Most readers saw this as no disgrace, perhaps reflecting general support for welfare as a safety net for people trying to make their own way and also a function of the Wyatts' heart-rending appeal.

Some see it differently. Ms. Kwiatkowski says the Wyatts' story ''shows a contempt for the kinds of self-sufficiency and hard-core efforts demonstrated by a lot of other people.''

Her feelings reflect a current of sentiment against acceptance of public help -- even temporarily, even when circumstances justify it and especially when the recipients are faceless -- that is stronger than reaction to this story indicates.

The sentiment is strongest among those you'd think would be most empathetic -- those who have known hardship themselves. Antipathy toward the movement of city public-housing residents the counties is strongest in hard-working blue-collar areas, where the commonly heard refrain is, ''We pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. Why can't you?''

An ennobling thought

It's a pleasant, ennobling thought, the notion that we've earned everything we have strictly through our own blood, sweat and tears. It also is usually a myth. Most of us, no matter how hard-working, have received help somewhere along the way from family, friends, a church and, yes, from the government. Student loans and grants, the home-mortgage deduction, the GI bill -- they're all public assistance, too.

The work ethic runs deep in this country, all the way back to its beginnings. We did not become a great nation by being slugs. But the elevation of work in some quarters to a kind of religion, with a self-righteous contempt for anyone who accepts help who is not paralyzed from the neck down, having exhausted his last dollar, has gotten a bit extreme.

The ability to overcome obstacles, like every other human attribute, varies. Some are made of smarter, stronger and more resourceful stuff than others. Others do the best they can but, occasionally finding that it is not enough, accept that there are times when they cannot, or should not, go it alone. I'm not sure the one group is more noble than the other.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/29/96

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