Or You Live as You Think

Paul Bourget wrote that “one must live the way one thinks or end up thinking the way one has lived.” The point being: it’s not really stable or tenable to maintain a values system that’s completely removed from how you actually live your life. Eventually you’ll either modify the values system or modify the way you live.

The Christian Science Monitor has an article out on Arnold Abbott, the 90 year old man who has been cited twice in Fort Lauderdale for feeding homeless people even after ordinances were passed to stop that. The CS Monitor wonders: “is this charity or a crime?” Well, both — but they mean crime in its normative sense. Is this charity, or is it something harmful?

Supporters of anti-homeless ordinances do say that rendering aid to homeless people is harmful. Their reasoning:

“The people feeding them are enablers, and they enable the homeless by making their lives easier…Hunger is a big motivator. Are people more likely to seek help when they’re hungry or when they’re fed and happy?”

“Feeding people on the streets is sanctioning homelessness…Whatever discourages feeding people on the streets is a positive thing.”

The notion that homelessness is something that persists only so long as it’s ‘enabled’ is completely true, but the homeless persons themselves are not the agents of it. Societies that fail to provide an adequate accessible standard of living for all people — including people with mental and physical illnesses they can’t afford to treat, which constitutes a significant number of homeless people — are the agents that enable homelessness. The idea that homeless people rationally choose to be homeless thanks to the food they periodically receive from charitable sources is complete lunacy, and I’m not even sure the people who spew it believe it.

But there is a reason they go with that approach. The real reason cities ban homelessness (in effect) is because businesses demand that they do, in order to sell things to wealthier people. People who come out to stump for those ordinances come up with a rhetoric that works because ‘homeless people are business-killing eyesores’ is no longer an acceptable public sentiment.

The sentiment that is acceptable is that charity is wrong because it allows certain conditions of poverty to persist, that is, it allows poor people to keep being poor instead of enacting some (what?) heroic measures to join the ranks of the worthwhile. Now this is an argument with some oomph: it’s the exact same one being used to go after the earned income tax credit, for example; it’s often phrased in terms of ‘dependency’ or ‘reliance.’ It’s a punitive idea, a strategy that denies structural causes of poverty and proposes that poor people will quit being poor if you just make poverty hard enough for them. Tough love, without the love.

But here’s the curious thing: usually dependency narratives — like Joni Ernst’s recent stab — lament reliance on the state, but refer with all due nostalgia to a time when people relied on charities, families, and churches. So why would the rhetoric surrounding the ‘enabling’ of poverty apply here, where private charity is being condemned?

Because you end up living as you think, after a while, and there really is no clear distinction between the enabling of poverty that arises from state assistance and enabling of poverty that arises from private assistance. Charity will be condemned with the same rule that condemns welfare, because the ‘dependency’ argument is an intentionally blunt instrument: it doesn’t really have an interest in poor people; it just proposes a premise on which to cease aid.

*(In case there is concern re: do you actually know homeless people and have a good sense of what enables homelessness? Yes, I do! It’s a topic that matters a lot to me.)