True Heroes Will Help Beggars Through Another Day
by Barbara Sumner Burstyn

January 12, 2004

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Letters to the editor are often a source of inspiration. Like the recent letter to the [New Zealand] Herald headlined "Meet a true hero", in which Rob Roche, of Parnell, told us about his trip to the United States.

He and his wife were concerned by all the beggars intoning their endless mantra, "got any change". Luckily for Mr. Roche, he was advised by friends that the beggars were not interested in gainful employment in a country where welfare was "evidently available".

Then, back home, our world traveler was heartened to find a disabled man selling chocolates, thereby earning his keep. A true hero, Mr. Roche said.

Perhaps, as the letter stated, the disabled man's chocolate sales were supporting a worthy cause. But I wonder if that was really what made our writer so satisfied about his local transaction.

Was it, instead, the receipt of something tangible that made this such a memorable and legitimate exchange for him? Or was it that under the veneer of selling chocolates Mr. Roche felt protected from the reality that this man was also a beggar.

I wonder if it occurred to Mr. Roche that this might not have been the chocolate seller's first choice? That selling sweets on the street for spare change is not a real job and was perhaps a last resort for a man on the margins of a society that rewards the fit and healthy and discards those less fortunate.

Excuse me Mr. Roche, of Parnell, but are you from another planet, a libertarian world perhaps, fit only for the self-sufficient and lucky, where people are worthy of your largesse only if they fit your model of industrious citizenry? And by the way, when did you last donate your time to a good cause, as you want to believe this disabled man was doing?

If it's been a while, why is it a virtuous act for the disabled, with few options but to spend their "spare" time in this manner, but not you?

I've often wondered about the journey to extreme poverty so evident in the US. After all, according to the letter-writer's friends, there's plenty of welfare in America.

Perhaps his friends were so busy they missed the fact that while over US$1.1 billion ($1.6 billion) is spent each day on the military, $49 billion ($73 billion) was cut from health care, welfare benefits, education and other public services two years ago, and a further $25.7 billion ($38 billion) was cut last year.

With an election coming up, President George W. Bush has just drafted a budget that will continue to reduce the viability of the poor, with such stellar moves as further limiting rental assistance vouchers, and eliminating some job training and employment programs.

Many commentators portray the struggle for economic justice in America as class warfare. Activist David Krieger described recently how more than 40 million Americans are without health insurance, and with little or no access to basic medical care.

There are tens of millions of Americans without homes, and home ownership has become an impossible dream for most young Americans, while the opportunity for a college education is also receding as the funds provided for education diminish.

If Mr. Roche and his friends need further evidence, Barbara Ehrenreich's bestseller, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America is a great place to start. Her book, a classic of undercover reporting, details the rhetoric surrounding the welfare reform promises that any job equals a better life, and exposes the myths Americans tell themselves about the working and non-working poor.

So next time you're in America Mr. Roche, may I suggest, if you can spare the time, you observe a beggar working his corner and watch who gives money and who doesn't. First, you'll realize that the poor always seem to have a few spare cents jangling in their pockets, while the well-off have perfected the art of the blank stare.

Of course, this is a generalization, and at any given time, from your prime spot, you'll see acts of generosity or meanness that transcend that barrier. But next time maybe you'll ignore your friend's advice and carry a little loose change in your pocket.

And chocolate or no chocolate, there is always a transaction in giving to those less advantaged. For your coins you get the opportunity to reflect for just a moment on what it would be like to walk a mile in someone else's shoes.

And although there's a small chance your tiny contribution might be encouraging a lazy lifestyle, it's more likely you've just helped sustain a fellow human being for another day on this earth.

Mr. Roche labeled the disabled chocolate seller a real hero. And in this one regard he is right. Anyone who scrapes by however he can, when he is disabled from participating in the capitalist dream, is a hero. The real truth here is that beggars are not choosers, and there but for the grace of God go all of us.

Barbara Sumner Burstyn is a freelance writer who commutes between Montreal, Quebec and The Hawkes Bay in New Zealand. She writes a weekly column for the New Zealand Herald (www.nzherald.co.nz), and has contributed to a wide range of media. She can be reached at: barb@sumnerburstyn.com. Visit her website to read more of her work: www.sumnerburstyn.com/ 2004 Barbara Sumner Burstyn

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* Smoke and Mirrors: Fatal Weapons in US War Against Reality

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* Hooker Look in Fashion as Porn Becomes de Rigueur

* The Twisted Logic of Mothers Who Abandon Mothering

* Only in America

* We Really are Living on the Dark Side of the Moon

* Viagra for Girls: Medical Light Bulbs Can't Switch off Relationship Woes

* No Room on the Balance Sheet for Truth or Humanity

* Working to Live has Been Overtaken by Living to Work








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