Monday, May 5, 2008

What do we owe to fellow citizens?

I recently had the opportunity to attend the annual awards ceremony of a local charitable organization. The room was filled with well-meaning persons who had spent a significant amount of time and energy during the last year volunteering, most in order to raise funds for pre-school enrichment programs for poor children. People were pleased with themselves; they had done good works and it was time to congratulate themselves for helping persons, especially young children, who through no fault of their own were starting life without the opportunities available to the children of the good people in the hall.
There were a lot of speeches and repeatedly speakers mentioned how their efforts "helped" people and especially children who were poor. The talk about "helping" really bothered me.
But why should it? After all this organization and its dedicated members did help people who were having a hard time and it did help to give their children a better start in life. Why be critical here?
Think of parents who have children. They take care of them, feed them, put clothes on them, see that they go to school with a good lunch and take them to Little League. They do that even when they themselves are worn out from work and child care and taking care of the house and the car. But are they "helping" their children? No. They are providing what the children are owed. As parents we take on obligations to our children. Much of the time it is a pleasure to provide what our children are entitled to. But when it is not, when we would like some time off from raising them, we continue because we have taken on an obligation to our children by bringing them into the world.
Children--all children--are entitled to a good childhood and a good upbringing. That's why parents are not "helping" their children but providing what they deserve. Helping is doing something extra, something that is not owed, something one does from the goodness of one's heart. Parents help their children only in extraordinary situations when they do much more than the children are owed. Once children are grown and, on the whole, are supporting themselves, many parents chip in some money here and there. Now they are helping. Adult children are on their own and rightly so. Parents who help them out here and there, if they can, are doing something extra, something that is not owed.
But what about other people's children? When I work along with others to see to it that those children whose parents are barely able to pay the rent and buy food, have a good start in life, am I helping? Or am I contributing to providing what these children are owed? Put that question differently: do we owe our own children a good start in life but not anyone else's, or do we as members of this society have some obligation to do what we can that all children start their life as well as humanly possible?
If you believe that your only obligations are to children that you bring into this world, then what you do for the children of others families is indeed "helping." It is doing something extra.
I tend to think that all of us as citizens of this republic owe something to other citizens: if we can we must see to it that everyone has a chance at a good life. Everyone is entitled to that. Some people, those who earn very little, have a hard time providing even elementary resources to their children. So the rest of us must chip in. We owe that.
Why do I believe that? If I go into a chain coffee shop, my coffee and donut are cheap, in part, because the folks behind the counter earn very little. The same is true if I do not pay a lot for having my oil changed, or when buying at Walmart.
As consumers all of us profit from the low earnings of the people who wait on us and help us in a variety of stores, service stations, restaurants. If these people then have trouble providing for their children as they would like, are we not under some obligation to make provisions for them?