homeless "cunning manipulators, not victims": business press FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Sat, 2 May 1998 13:25:48 -0700 (PDT)


 FWD  Forbes Magazine - May 04, 1998

 The Forbe Lunch 

 Heather Mac Donald is a journalist who thinks much of what
 we do for the poor helps keep them poor.


 By Dyan Machan

 Agnes in midtown Manhattan. While we are waiting for lunch
 to arrive, a homeless man picks up a dining room chair and
 smashes it against the wall. "Not victims of poverty," Heather
 Mac Donald notes dispassionately. "Victims of their own
 demons, what happens after living on the streets with too
 much time on your hands."

 We are sitting at a plastic-covered table among the shelter's 40
 or so regulars, or "clients," as they are respectfully known.
 Mac Donald, 41, has never eaten in this shelter before, but she
 knows the system well. Many of the homeless, she says, are
 not down on their luck but cunning manipulators of the
 welfare system. "A battle of wits between the wily homeless
 and guileless outreach workers is no match," she writes in
 City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute, a
 conservative think tank.

 The City Journal, of which she is a contributing editor, has a
 circulation of just 10,000, but its influence is out of
 proportion to its readership. When Mac Donald blasted City
 University of New York for lowering its academic standards
 in the name of diversity, she spurred the current fight for
 wholesale changes.

        Illigetimacy is the natural cause of
        poverty. There is a great lie that
        poverty is not a moral condition.

 Most of the comfortably affluent feel guilty about the poor and
 unfortunate. Beyond a certain point, this is harmful to the
 people we want to help. Watching the chair-throwing gets
 Mac Donald started: "The advocates have carved out this
 sphere of absolute autonomy for the homeless. They
 shouldn't have to work. Shouldn't have to behave civilly.
 They [the advocates] purport to be doing this out of
 compassion. I believe they are living a vicarious, anticapitalist
 fantasy, making the homeless into romantic rebels."

 Mac Donald is a bit of a rebel herself, though it is not
 capitalism she rebels against but mushy thinking. Bored as a
 lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency in
 Washington, D.C., she moved to New York in 1987 to take
 some courses at New York University and the New School
 for Social Research; she already had degrees in literature from
 Yale and Cambridge, and in law from Stanford.

 Reexposure to academia turned her into a crusader against
 multiculturalism and other fashionable social theories.
 "Multiculturalism was destroying universities!" she says.
 "Women claiming they can only read women. Blacks can only
 read work by black authors. It made me crazy." She began
 criticizing multiculturalism in articles that appeared in
 magazines like the New Republic, Partisan Review and the
 New Criterion.

 "I was still a liberal," she recalls. "What was turning me
 around was race- and gender-based hiring, which is insulting
 to everyone." The chef comes by to announce that we will be
 having chicken lo mein, and to ask, since neither I nor Mac
 Donald qualifies as homeless, if we would please pay. I got
 the same rate the staff pays: $1 per meal, a sum upon which
 the kitchen says it breaks even. I wonder.

 Mac Donald was not put off by the interruption. "Illegitimacy
 is the natural cause of poverty," she proclaims. "There is a
 great lie going around that poverty is an economic condition
 rather than a moral one. What's left out is that the vast
 majority of those living under the poverty line are in
 single-parent households. It's the best way to ensure poverty.
 It dooms most children, making them many times more likely
 to drop out of school than children of married parents." More
 likely to suffer child abuse, to commit suicide, to abuse drugs
 and to end up in jail, too, she adds.

 I think to myself: Lies! Mushy thinking! Romantic illusions!
 This woman feels strongly. I timidly proffer a standard
 feminist response to her diatribe against illegitimacy: "It's my
 body; even if I'm poor, I have the right to have a baby!"

 "Not if I have to support it," she says crisply. "The poor don't
 have babies to get on welfare, but the policies have enabled
 illegitimacy, removing an enormous financial penalty."

 Partly as a result, she says, we have created a network of
 people whose interests are served by keeping the poor poor.
 Shelters compete for the homeless to justify their budgets. At
 this one, run by privately funded Grand Central
 Neighborhood Social Services Corp., there was a special
 marketing campaign last November to engage new clients by
 offering a free breakfast and $5 in cash.

 A steaming plate of chicken lo mein arrives on a paper plate.
 It's not great food, but it's certainly not bad, either. This is no
 stale bread and thin soup. That gets Mac Donald started again.
 "The homeless should be required to clean up or do
 something." Here the homeless are asked to help-but are not
 required-so there is such a thing as a free lunch.

 "In the 19th century, charity had a work test," she recalls.
 "'Go out back and chop wood.'" In a 1990s version of such a
 work test, New York City is now requiring certain welfare
 recipients to do jobs like cleaning up Central Park. This
 requirement reduced welfare rolls 25% to 30%. Many of the
 recipients likely had off-the-book jobs already, Mac Donald

 A neatly dressed young man of around 20 is sitting by
 himself. Mac Donald approaches him. He stands up and
 begins to move away. Mac Donald fixes her unblinking gaze
 on him and starts firing questions. "Do you work here? Do
 you come here every day? Do you have a home? A family?"
 she asks.

 Glazed eyes nervously darting back and forth, he mutters that
 he has no place to stay and no family.

 I ask Mac Donald for her verdict: "He should be diagnosed for
 drug treatment."

 After we said good-bye, Mac Donald descended into a
 subway station. As I returned to the office, I found myself
 realizing: Sure we should lend a hand to the poor-but
 well-meaning programs to help them often don't do the trick.


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