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Acts of God: The Deserving Poor and Everyone Else
28 March 2002
There's been an earthquake in Afghanistan. Thousands of people homeless, maybe 200 dead, villages flattened. These were people killed, injured, made homeless by a force completely beyond their control, basically an act of God, to use a loaded expression. The international community pours in aid, American newspapers print the story on the front page. This is an appropriate reaction to a horrifying tragedy.
American bombs fall on Afghanistan. Some 6000 civilians have been killed and who knows how many injured, made homeless, orphaned. These people have had their lives destroyed by a force completely beyond their control. Where's the aid? The bombing has prevented the International Red Cross from doing its work. Where's the front page coverage? Most American newspapers haven't printed body counts except when Americans have died.
So who gets that earthquake aid? Are you somehow more worthy because the force that knocked your house down was natural instead of manmade? What if you broke your leg in the earthquake and your neighbor broke his leg stepping on a land mine? Who deserves help, and why?
It gets weirder. The San Francisco Chronicle printed a story about the earthquake and the international relief effort on the front page. They also printed two more revealing stories the same day.
On page 12: "Bush extends benefits for WTC jobless." W., in a rare instance of doing something that I support, signed legislation extending unemployment benefits to people put out of work by the tragedies of September 11. These people lost their jobs because of circumstances completely beyond their control, and they clearly deserve public support.
And for some real irony, on the front page, right below the earthquake story: "High court upholds evictions for drugs." The Supreme Court ruled that federal housing authorities can evict people from public housing for the crime of being related to someone who has been arrested. So if someone in your household is arrested (and the story did say arrested, not convicted) on a drug charge, you can be tossed out on the street. If your child, father, wife, brother, or even houseguest is arrested, you can lose your home for something that was completely beyond your control. I wonder what would happen if an earthquake hit a public housing project.
We make these decisions every day. Here in San Francisco, we agree that people whose expensive Marina district homes were damaged in the 1989 earthquake deserved our help. At the same time, we walk past hungry people on the street every day. We allow the police to confiscate shopping carts that contain all of someone's worldly possessions. Those rich white folks from the Marina, if they were on the street for three days, would we let the police take their belongings? What if they were homeless for three months? Three years? When does someone stop being the victim of a tragedy and start being a problem to be dealt with? We'll be stuck with these questions until we decide that everyone who is hungry, for whatever reason, deserves to eat.