COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | GEORGE HAWKINS

Public assistance and traditional values

Three members of the San Diego City Council in 2003 were accused of extortion, wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud for allegedly accepting illegal campaign contributions from a strip club owner. The accusation was related to an apparent desire to end the city’s no-touch laws.

Recently my wife and I took a tourist ride on one of San Francisco’s cable cars. Not far off route, above what appeared to be some sort of nightclub there is a sign inviting passersby to come in and “touch my junk.” While that invitation might have been there during or before 2003, it is quite the contrast.

The other day a friend sent me a nostalgia video. This one focused on the 1940s. I was old enough toward the end of that period that I recognize much of what was offered in that piece. Compared to what we see and hear in the media these days, that, too, is quite the contrast.

Seeing this video and thinking of the contrasts, I am also prompted to wonder which propelled which. Is the way we behave and think reflected in public media or do television and movies push us toward more casual consideration of what was unacceptable in the past?

Is the media, including movies and television, simply depicting current behavior or is it an inducement for the kind of thing which is now seen? That same sort of question might be asked of government assistance programs.

President Barack Obama has touted the increase in the number of people using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as a positive thing. Saying more people are using public financial support is not a measure of success. It is a measure of failure.

In May of this year Anthony Daniels, a writer and doctor, spoke at a Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar in Michigan. He discussed his views on the growing dependence on public support.

Daniels says he is convinced that government largess does more than just encourage participation, it encourages its continuation. He cites as an example the fact that some researchers have concluded there are “fiscal and welfare incentives for parents at the lower economic reaches of society not to stay together.”

Daniels worked in many developing countries and in one of the poorest areas of London. Based on those experiences, Daniels has concluded that often people who dine extensively at the public trough, while perhaps initially needy, soon come to view such help not so much as a right but as a reason to remain in dire straits. They do this, he says, by convincing themselves that, as he describes it, for them “work is for pocket money, the public dole is the means by which one lives.”

Using another anecdote, Daniels described a conversation he had with a woman who complained that the backyard of her public supported housing was full of trash. When he asked why she didn’t clean it up, she said, “I’ve asked the council many times to do it.” In her mind she was a tenant. It was the council’s responsibility to maintain the place.

The state of Utah seems to have recognized that giving people actual ownership of their living space might dislodge that point of view. It may be expensive, but if it works it may be economically sound over the long haul. More importantly, it may also help very low-income people out of their dire straits.

None of us takes as much care of the things we have been given as those things we earn. However, people who are unable to buy a home but come to see it as “theirs” might be more willing to take steps to protect that home and to keep it in decent condition.

It is still a “gift.” But it is theirs and may engender an understanding that to keep it they will need to work and take care of it.


Hawkins is retired after 35 years as a construction industry association manager. He was a broadcast reporter and news anchor in Denver. As a Navy officer, he saw action in Vietnam in the River Assault Squadrons and is the recipient of a Silver Star and Purple Heart.

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