“The Samaritan’s Dilemma”

January 26, 2009 at 8:36 pm | Posted in Nonfiction | 7 Comments

I am more excited by this book than by anything I’ve read in ages.  I loved The Samaritan’s Dilemma so much that I had to stop more than once to pump my fists in the air.

Deborah Stone subtitles this book “Should Government Help Your Neighbor?”  She refutes the Reagan-era conservative contention that charity and public assistance teach people to rely on handouts and render them not just unwilling, but unable, to care for themselves.  She also says that the human desire to help others is so strong that people will risk their jobs to be able to do so, citing health workers who surreptitiously run errands for their disabled clients on their own time in violation of agency rules.

I found the arguments of this book terribly exciting.  My own family’s experiences have always contradicted that old “don’t feed the bears” welfare-is-bad theory.  My parents, dumb teenagers in love, found themselves with three kids at age 21 and in Oregon just in time for the recession.  My parents worked to put each other through college, and now, of the five of us, all of us earn middle-class incomes, have a cumulative four college degrees (plus one in progress), and own three houses.  We did it by relying on:  food stamps; an emergency assistance grant; the Oregon Health Plan; surplus government cheese; the reduced-price school lunch program; church food boxes; interest-free family loans; gifts from friends including food, clothing, and furniture; Goodwill Industries; two state universities; three community colleges; the GI Bill; subsidized educational loans including the Stafford Loan program; various educational grants; a VA home loan; the Earned Income Tax Credit; three separate labor unions; various anonymous samaritans who found ways to feed us and help us with car trouble; and, of course, the public library.  (Note that credit cards were not involved; my folks had no credit record in 1990 when they bought their house because they always paid cash).  You’ll be happy to hear that my family has not needed public or private assistance of any kind since the 1980s; all those family loans have been repaid, with interest; and the only student loan left is mine, on which I am currently six years ahead.

We don’t take charity any more – we give it, including the Union Gospel Mission, Redwood Gospel Mission, Sisters of the Road Cafe, the Oregon Food Bank, Oregon HEAT, JOIN, Give Back a Smile, the Giving Tree, the Cancer Ski-Out, and The Kiva (though the latter is technically not a charity).  My mom is well known for kooky stunts like baking banana bread for the homeless guy near her office.

What’s sad about the Samaritan’s Dilemma, to me, is how deeply the idea that charity is harmful has sunk in to our culture.  I talked about this book with several people, all of whom brought up the problem of scam artists, including “welfare queens” and people who stand by the side of the road holding cardboard signs and then supposedly drive off in luxury vehicles.  Personally, I don’t care whether I’m getting “ripped off” when I give to charity.  There is no way for me to know whether my charitable giving has the intended effect; for instance, when I buy a bike for a kid for the Giving Tree, will someone steal it from her before the New Year?  Will she ride out in traffic and get herself killed?  Dunno.  (Though I always make sure to include a lock and a helmet).  The important thing for me is the positive spiritual benefit I feel from the act of giving.  I have to give.  It’s a physical demand in my body.  When I hear about someone in trouble, I know precisely how that sort of thing can happen, and I know from deep personal experience that it’s possible to get out of it, but not alone.  I have to give; I have to.  I can only do my best and cast my bread upon the water, hoping a duck gets it and not a rat.


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  1. This one sounds so neat!! I should make my dad read it. 🙂 He’s a bit too fond of Reagonomics. *rolls eyes*

  2. I think there’s a paradox in Reaganomics. There is a direct relationship between level of income and volume of bitching about taxes.

    I pay more in taxes now than I earned when I was working my way through college. Whenever I think about this, I smile!

  3. Ha, it’s funny because I’m currently in the boat of people should care for others directly and not through the government. I believe in charity, but maybe not always through the government which has a tendency to waste money. Studies have shown that n general, people who believe that the government is helping the poor are less likely to give themselves, they rely entirely on their taxes to do so. Being a bit conservative, I would prefer to choose where my charitable dollars are going myself. I do give to charity, but if my taxes are raised, that lowers the amount that I’m able to give to the places of my choice.

  4. I really like this post.

    I know too many people who are unwilling to give because the people who need help “got themselves into that situation”.

    There but for the Grace of God…

    We all need to give and give the wisest way we can but worrying about the outcome of the gift is almost always a disguise for stinginess.

  5. @Amy – It’s interesting you should bring that up, because Deborah Stone covers this problem in the book as well. People see ‘government’ as a problem rather than as a tool to get their desires carried out.

    The majority of the help my family received in crawling out of poverty was from the government, in quantity, in duration, and in frequency. Since both of my parents worked, even when we qualified for food stamps, I’m not sure whether private charities would have been of much help to us if they were the only things available. Even with government and private charities, there are still many needy people in the world, and there’s certainly room for improvement in this area.

    What are your favorite charities?

  6. I’m really interested in reading this one, and having my husband read it as well. We tend to be on opposite sides of this one and it would be fun to compare notes. In my real life I am a loan officer at a small credit union. The majority of our members are blue collar. There is a real struggle for many of them, esp in the winter months when snow prevents them from working. I feel really bad when credit union policies prevent me from helping people I know are honest people because they can’t meet a fixed criteria.

  7. My man Rocket Scientist and I tend to be on opposite sides, too, but I’ve converted him into a charity junkie like me. 🙂 He became disillusioned with conservatism when he started realizing how many mentally ill people wind up living on the streets. We believe it’s society’s responsibility to care for those who can’t care for themselves, but we are failing at this.

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