Government should give family benefit of the doubt

This Just In...

November 29, 1999|By Dan Rodricks

Readers reacted with sympathy, empathy, mild outrage and charity (checks and cash) to the story (TJI, Nov. 15) of Michael Younger, the Eastern Shore contractor who broke his back in a fall last spring and whose family has been struggling to get by, with only meager support from the government. The story demonstrated how America's vaunted safety net has big holes.

At a time when politicians, Democratic and Republican, brag about the effectiveness of welfare reform, government policy gives limited support to Americans trying to move up from poverty. And there's virtually no safety net for middle-class families who, for various reasons -- in the Youngers' case, disability of the main breadwinner -- fall down the social ladder. The Youngers -- Michael, his wife, Sharon, and their three children -- would be expected to give up their modest house in Queen Anne's County to qualify for government assistance. Because he chose to use his monthly disability insurance benefits to pay his mortgage, Michael Younger gets no government assistance, other than $100 in food stamps per month and medical assistance for his kids. He cannot afford medical insurance for himself or his wife. The Social Security Administration denied him disability benefits.

That's my brief summation of the story. Michael Younger, on a slow road to recovery from his injuries, strikes me as a modest guy. He wasn't looking for a column -- it was his wife's idea to contact The Sun -- to gain sympathy. But he thinks the larger point needed to be made. After years of beating up on welfare as wasteful and regressive, we've made eligibility too rigorous and financial assistance too meager. And we don't offer much backup support for the working man -- in this case, a self-employed home-improvement contractor with three kids and a mortgage -- who literally falls without an adequate safety net of his own. (Younger had purchased disability insurance to cover his mortgage and another smaller loan, in the event he was unable to work.)

One TJI reader, Michael Kaye, disagreed that the government should play a larger role in helping a guy such as Michael Younger. "Entrepreneurs," he wrote, "must be prepared to fall and not depend on the rest of us to bail them out if they do so."

"Entrepreneur" strikes me as a fancy word for a 40-year-old guy who has been working -- and paying taxes -- since he was 16 with the admirable ambition of one day starting his own company. Should a guy like that fall, you'd think the government would want to give him and his family a boost until he gets back on his feet. Kaye, a self-described advocate of "cautious financial management and personal responsibility," didn't buy that.

"You approached the story from the perspective that Michael Younger was an innocent victim of a cruel world and an uncaring system," Kaye wrote TJI. "It was as if he had nothing to do with the troubles that have fallen upon his family."

(Younger fell through scaffolding while repairing second-story windows on a house.)

"Michael Younger gambled," Kaye continued. "Like a day trader speculating on an IPO or a retiree betting the pension on roulette, he gambled and lost. The odds were fair, but it was a gamble nonetheless. The economy is good and he wanted to be his own boss, so he borrowed some money and started his own company. When things were going well, we didn't hear any complaints. But the fact is that entrepreneurial ventures are risks, not guarantees. Mr. Younger decided to risk the well being of his family on his own health and the success of his business, and unfortunately both have failed."

Kaye said I failed to mention "a couple of other threads" in the social safety net that could help the Youngers. For one thing, there should be free school meals for the kids. "That covers about two-thirds of the meals for three-fifths of the Younger family," Kaye wrote. "That'll help stretch the food stamp budget."

And Kaye suggested the Youngers file for bankruptcy. (They have, as pointed out in the Nov. 15 column.)

"Since nothing is anyone's fault anymore, our bankruptcy laws are quite liberal. The Youngers can file Chapter 11 and take a hit on their credit rating for the next seven years, but they'll pay pennies on the dollar for [Younger's] business debts and they'll get to keep their home. That'll free up a lot more of the family income. You and I will pay for it in higher credit card and loan rates, but that's how the unofficial safety net works."

Kaye made some good points in his letters to me, but he sounded a little too sure of himself.

Putting yourself in another person's place, imagining life as others experience it, is difficult.

It's hard for some people to see how, even in this robust economy of ours, middle-class people with kids have trouble saving money for a rainy day. It's hard for some to understand that a self-employed guy with a small home-improvement business would be able to afford only enough disability insurance to cover his mortgage.

I think "personal responsibility" is great, but it has its limits. Work hard and pay taxes for 24 years, then fall through scaffolding, land on your back on a concrete driveway, experience 11 hours of surgery, spend five months in a full- body brace -- I don't think you'd want to hear a lecture on "personal responsibility." I don't think you'd be happy getting rejection letters from the Department of Social Services, either.

So I don't think it's asking too much of government to extend a person in Michael Younger's position some help.

But then, I tend to leave a little room when I size up people and their predicaments, and I believe government is there to help people who need it, permanently or temporarily. I find it absurd that we want Michael Younger to lose his house before extending him benefits -- and appalling that someone who needs physical therapy can't afford the health insurance he needs.

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