The Limited Role of Government — Help People Help Themselves


Thomas Purcell is a contributor to The Brenner Brief. His columns post each Friday.

Officer Larry De Primo of the New York City Police Department did a commendable thing by reaching out with his own charity and paying for some new shoes for homeless veteran Jeff Hillman.

The problem is, Mr. Hillman didn’t need a new pair of shoes. He needs a new set of decision-making abilities, something all the charity in the world and social engineering isn’t going to solve.
After 50 years of extensive social programs and government engineering, it is still unfathomable to most people how a person could still be living homeless on the street with no shoes. New York State and City have some of the highest taxes in the world, and the most extensive social programs to go with it. The problem is not money, nor access to free clothing and food. Mr. Hillman had both, including his own Section 8 paid for apartment, food stamps and access to shelters and clothing.

The problem is Mr. Hillman himself, who may or may not be mentally ill, but definitely has an issue with his decision-making ability like many in his situation. In fact, many Americans in his situation are in the same boat — unable to cope with society and decidedly living in poverty and homelessness out of an inability to make rational decisions that most in society do. Either because of drugs, alcohol or just bad wiring, many on the street just can’t understand how to make proper decisions to live from day-to-day.

The problem is much deeper than anyone who only takes a superficial interest in human nature can understand. We often see people living in trailer park level conditions that win big in national lotteries then become bankrupt and are in even worse situations shortly thereafter. The stories of these sorts of situations are more than anecdotal; more than 90 percent of lottery winners go bankrupt within ten years of winning. The reason is simple, but hard to understand—people’s fates are the results of poor decision-making, by and large, and are the net result of those decisions, not luck as many on the left would argue. Similarly, those that succeed in life are not ‘lucky’ or crooks, they are the end result of good decision-making, and hard work.

Thus, the widespread problems of poverty, homelessness and other social ills will not be solved through the application of government charity or money. Good arguments can be made for a better mental health system, but ultimately Americans must come to grips with the reality that bad things happen to good people, and the best way to make society better is to encourage good decision-making — not reward or rescue people from their bad ones.

A good start would be to limit charitable government aid to time-period specific and intense aid, rather than prolonging their agony through unlimited help. If you become homeless, sick, or otherwise down on your luck, the government could provide you with that place to live, a hot meal and some clean clothes—but only for a short time period and in conjunction with retraining and job placement services (for example, up to one year). Then you would be on your own. It would work much like unemployment insurance used to work — six months, and you’re out.

It would encourage people to get up off the ground on their own two feet, and give them what they really need: a sense of pride in accomplishment of doing for themselves. If you talk to many of these homeless, they don’t want charity — they want a job and some dignity.

Should the wretched masses choose to live on the streets, and derelict themselves to oblivion, they may still do so. Government, however, should not be subsidizing it with years of food stamps and housing benefits. Imagine the high quality of mental health system we could have if we could divert the spending on these things into quality care for those who really cannot ever help themselves.

Government must focus its efforts on helping people help to help themselves, rather than subsidizing failure. Teach men to fish rather than live off the scraps of others.





  1. Dear Mr. Purcell-

    I couldn’t agree with you more that there are a whole lot of folks out here who keep digging themselves deeper and deeper into their holes because of poor decision making. But what I don’t think you realize is that people who are ‘mentally ill’ are often bad decision makers, as well. The two characteristics are, contrary to the logical fallacy of the “package deal” — a package deal.

    An acquaintance of mine, who lives in a State facility, is bipolar. He’s bright, quick-witted, funny, charming, and decidedly practical, until he decides that he’s so bright, quick-witted, funny, charming, and decidedly practical, that he doesn’t need to take his medication anymore. Now, one might argue that therein is the problem: bad decision making; but is it not more probably that his mental illness defines his decision making much more than his decision-making defines his mental health? His mental illness is an incurable, but manageable (most of the time) disease. It’s a disease. And he cannot decide to not be subject or susceptible to his “disease.”

    I, myself, was a tax-paying, voting, active-in-my-community type person until I suffered a trauma, which incapacitated me for a brief time, but a time long enough to make my one-paycheck-away-from-the-street reality — a reality. Academics, particularly prior to tenure, don’t make a lot of money. The loss of my job, resulted in essentially, long-term unemployment. And as I’m sure you’ve heard, it’s much easier to find a job if you’re already employed… People are suspicious as to why you are not working…And jobs are very, very scarce. You advocate giving a person six months to find a job; yet, “long-term” unemployment is pervasive. It exists. Your six-month plan does not seem to recognize this fact.

    And despite having gone to graduate school, twice, I am not lazy. I have applied for waitressing jobs and been turned down because I am too old, not to mention, not very strong, but also because my qualifications indicate that if I were to find something better, I would leave! Truth be told, if I could get a waitressing position, and someone offered me something better after that, I would have the self-possession, and the appreciation, to at least, give two to three weeks notice, and even help train my replacement. But who’d believe that?

    While, on the surface, you and I are very different — you are a white male, who is obviously doing quite well, and I am a black woman who is not — we are really not that different in what we believe regarding personal responsibility, the role of government, and the importance of good decision making. But I’d like to call your attention to the fact that it was you, yourself, who admitted that “bad things happen to good people.” And sir, it is not always because those good people made bad decisions! To believe otherwise, I would think, would be to ascribe to the belief that “life is fair.” I, myself, tend to err more on the side of one of my heroes, Mark Twain, who said: “Life owes you nothing; it was here first.”

    I am also aware that some of us are born with built-in privileges (or as theorists have named it, “the invisible knapsack of privilege”) that others of us would never admit to in a thousand years. This is why a white male, with a felony record, and no high school education still has a better chance of being hired, albeit for a rotten job, than a black male with no felony record and a high school education. And this is just one of the reasons why we have Affirmative Action…

    But let me here, state, that I, a Black woman, don’t think Affirmative Action is working. But that’s another post. But I will go as far as to say that giving Black, or other minority students, extra admission points, to go to schools that expect a level of academic rigor to which they have yet to be exposed in all their years of schooling, is a recipe for sure failure. So, it’s a bit difficult for me to see life as “cut and dried” as you seem to see it. I implore you to try to walk a mile in my shoes, or Mr. Hillman’s bare feet… But why would you want to do that? I just truly hope and pray that you never discover how, despite the best decision-making skills, sometimes, life can just happen to you. And it’s a very sobering experience.

    Kindest regards…

  2. And Mr. Purcell, I wanted to add that I am grateful for your pingback of my own post regarding my own homeless experiences, as well as my thoughts on Mr. Hillman. I always appreciate a hearing, for whatever reason.

  3. Vivien,

    I felt compelled to respond to your kind and thoughtful message.

    Despite what you might think, I too, have had many a hard time. I’ve been so poor at times I’ve eaten off the floors, been without shoes, and been without work.

    Being poor or unemployed was no excuse for me not to work however. I’ve lived on friends sofa’s, borrowed money from family and strangers, and taken whatever work I could do to feed myself. If you think I don’t have sympathy for the poor, you are gravely mistaken.

    But in doing so, I’ve discovered the periods in which I have made the greatest personal and professional strides were when times were worst and I did not get any help and was forced to live through my own sweat. I have never accepted government aid, I have steadfastly refused to do so. Like you, I went to college, working several jobs, including cleaning toilets and portapotties to get enough money together to pay for my needs and taking night classes to finish my degree(s). I daresay had government been there to bail me out with housing, food and free education it would have felt easier, but in the end its likely I would have made less of myself.

    You see, hardship builds character, and without consequence there can be no greatness.

    Many African Americans are the victims of racism, but to rely on government to get yourself ahead, you lessen the cause of fighting against racism. As Chief Justice Clarence Thomas has said, it just means as an African American you have to work just that much harder. Does it stink, is it lousy? Yes. Yet, if you cheapen the value of hard work and suffering in order to achieve your goals, in the end all you do i lessen the value of the reward not only for yourself but for others as well. I would encourage you to read his book on these matters, as I have. Frankly, at the risk of offending you, the use of your skin color as a reason why you have not gotten ahead or others have not, is a major problem in our society today. It is anathema to the building of societal character, falls flat, and insults the great strides African Americans have made.

    Lastly, it is my contention that if Americans were paying less taxes, and under less governance there would be more jobs and more money for wages and more money in the pockets of hard working Americans– and thus correcting the inherent problem of not enough jobs, and low wages. As Ronald Reagan said, “the best social program I know of is a good job.”

    People’s conditions are the net result of the decisions they make in life. I consider that an axiom.

    On a side note, I did mention the use of social programs for the mentally ill as a safety net should be discussed. ( “Imagine the high quality of mental health system we could have if we could divert the spending on these things into quality care for those who really cannot ever help themselves”.) However, for able bodied adults of any color skin, people need to be taught to either sink or swim without the life raft nearby. The only way to achieve that to limit how long we subsidize living in poverty.

    Good luck to you.

  4. P.S. As you stated about ‘unable to get a job as black with a felony record’ (paraphrased)- you proved my point. The failure was not the skin color, the failure was committing the felony.

    • Dear Mr. Purcell-

      Thank you, kindly for your response, good wishes, and the opportunity to engage. While I do believe that the artificial construct of “race” does complicate human affairs, I am in no way blaming my newfound poverty on race. As I mentioned, my “fall” was precipitated by suffering a”trauma,” an assault, which nearly ruined my lifr.

      Prior to my life-changing event, I was proof of the fact that by virtue of an excellent education, an opportunity which in itself was available to me as a black woman, that skin color does not have to be a hindrance to success. Nonetheless, I still believe that you have much to learn about what the world looks like to those who live behind black skin. And while Justice Thomas is a great example of a successful black man, no black person has ever so hugely failed to “resonate” with so many other black people… There is a reason why he is much more popular with white people.. And part of that reason is that he, too, believes that the problem of “race” is, somehow solved, simply by dimissing it. And lets just say that’s much easier for a Supreme Court Justice to do than for those of us literally down in the trenches.
      “race” is not a significant issue. I have called this M.O., if you will, the “Twaining” of America, with reference to the publisher, NewSouth, and their production of Mark Twain’s classic, Huckleberry Finn, sans the “n-word.” This, I believe to be nothing less than a travesty, and an attempt to promote not only revisionist history, but revisionist “living” and discourse because “race” being a non-issue for “some” does not necessarily make it so for others… Additionally, Mr. Purcell,in the example I gave you about the two men

      • [Sorry, I got cut off, no doubt for my windiness, and am having difficulties as I am typing this on my phone due to severely curtailed Internet/PC access. I can only see one sentence at a time of what I type] But back to my example of the two men, one white, one black, who competed for a job… I’m afraid you misread my example. You see, it was the White Felon with no education who was hired over the Black Non-Felon… So, in this “study,” race (blackness), was, indeed a factor…

        Nonetheless, I appreciate your sharing of your own personal struggles. Obviously, you do know the meaning of suffering and hard work. I, too, have eaten off the floor and out of dumpsters — and recently! In fact, I had to miss an opportunity to interview because I had no way if getting there because my license plates were confiscated due to my inability to find work, and thus, pay my car insurance. Prior to that, I couldn’t get to work because I couldn’t afford gasoline for my car. And even if I could have ridden the bus to work (substitute teaching), buses don’t run early enough to get me to my teacher assignments, which mostly begin around 7:15 AM… And no, I can’t take a cab — that costs money… And I can’t borrow the money… (If I had someone from whom I could borrow, I might still, at least, have had a car…

        I’m “over-qualified” and “too old” to waitress, or be a secretary; too physically weak to work construction; and just one of thousanfs of

      • …”thousands” of people suffering from long-term “unemployment.” Depressingly enough, the last time anyone offered me money, it was an older, well-dressed businessman(?), who, apparently thought I was a prostitute as I stood on a corner, in the dark of night, waiting for a bus, that was nearly 45 minutes late. I was wearing blue jeans a.d a huge, bulky winter coat…

        So, just as you tried and prevailed, kind sir, I , too, am trying. Thank you for your time and thoughtfulness. And thank you for wishing me luck — it looks like I’m going to need it. Finally, as I cannot see my response to you, in its entirety, I hope I’ve presented a fairly coherent “document.”

        It was a pleasure making your acquaintaince, and it’s nice to see that there are people like you “out there.” Take care.

  5. One last thing, getting back to the original argument. Mr. Hillman had shoes but gave them up. He had a place to live but gave it up. Had food, but ate off the street.

    Poverty is not cured by money, therefore it behooves society not to provide it, but rather to cure the problem inherent — the process in which we decide how to live our lives.

    Proper financial planning, preparation for a rainy day– or year, a sound family and friends network, charitable institutions, and a good mental illness hospital will do more for society than any social program which merely treats the symptoms and not the root causes.

    Not to get too personal, but every one of your responses involved some sort of excuse or explanation– you need to avoid that. You are better than that.

    It lessens the power of your argument and is indicative of a much greater problem at work today.

    The lack of a sense of responsibility and self sufficiency.

  6. Actually, Mr. Purcell, as I reread my last comment, I don’t see any “excuses,” at all. In no way do I try to blame anyone for my situation, or even admit to defeat. I am not defeated. I am the “captain of my ship and master of my soul”… I mention these things because it is part of how I write and communicate. A very wise friend of mine told me, about three weeks ago, that there are many more people “on the precipice” than we know — people just don’t talk about it. I “talk about it.” At first, it was quite embarrassing for me, but I got over that. You see, most of the people I meet, who share my circumstances, are functionally illiterate, reasonably intelligent, but suffering from “wet brain,” a by-product of alcohol addiction, or just so cowed by their experiences, that they have become mute and inured to life in general. These are some of the reasons it’s easier for “us” to talk about them — they’ve simply taken themselves “out” of the discussion…

    I make no “excuse” to anyone. And I have learned the “hard way” that few if any care, anyhow. Though I am not a Christian, I am a woman of faith. I do not look to you or anyone else to make me who I am, or want to be. I hope that does not sound arrogant because such is not my intention. I am not above asking for help when it is a matter of abject survival — like the time I went for two days without food. I asked for help because I wanted to live… Other than that, I just learn to make do, cut what I have in half, or quarters, whatever is necessary, and look to a brighter day.

    I think that some, but only some, people hear, or see, me as “making excuse” because the “conversation” is often so one-sided. Everyone has an opinion about “the poor,” but as in the case of Jeffrey Hillman, it never occurs to anyone to include them in the discussion. And even if they did, “the poor” are so overwhelmed by the vicissitudes of everyday living, they don’t want to talk — they just want to get their miserable days over with, go to bed, and gather the strength to put one foot in front of the other — again tomorrow.

    As bad as my situation is, you may be assured that I am far, far more fortunate than most people who have suffered homelessness. Many youthful poor have experienced going to the Department of Social Services as a family tradition, a “weekly outing,” or their parents’ “job.” They don’t know anything else. I know what it is to be successful, and fairly independent (no one is totally independent). Unlike many of the people with whom I associate everyday, I see a “better day” ahead.

    It pains me that you see me simply as “making excuses” when all I believe I have really done is allow you, and your readers, into my inner sanctum, my thought processes, as I try to work my way out of this. I believe that this type of documentation has value, that it can, and will, contribute to, and help raise the level of discourse pertaining to the homeless, the displaced, and the hopeless. I also find it interesting that it is more often men, and not women, who perceive my “confessions” in that way. I am a very strong woman, just not interested in doing it the “John Wayne” way…

    I will keep your respected and valued critique in mind as I go about my business of living. I’m sure it will help me to rephrase, here and there, but I cannot allow it to make me stop saying what so many people are not saying, and even more need to hear…

    Again, thank you so much! (And as I’m sure you can tell, I now have access to a PC!)


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