Paternalism, Deservingness, and Dependency

Paternalism, Deservingness, and Dependency

In his book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow writes about homeless women and how society tries, but ultimately fails to truly help the women survive and rejoin society. Our system for helping those in need, especially the homeless, is inefficient, ineffective, overly invasive, and ultimately fails to provide what people actually need. We have a system that provides limited government support that is hard to access and hard to understand. We provide what we think homeless people and people in need want, or what we want to provide them, not what they necessarily need.
Liewbow has an explanation for why we have a system that operates so poorly, “That we tolerate these system malfunctions can be understood in part as the end point of two streams of public thinking about the poor. One is that many poor people are not deserving of public support; the other is fear of giving them too much support and encouraging dependency.”
One of the things I have noticed in my own efforts to help support those in need is that what I think I should give people is not always what they actually need and want. Rather than giving panhandlers money, I prefer to give them some type of in-kind donation, often some type of non-perishable food item. I used to buy nutritious and calorically dense granola bars, but what I learned is that people who are asking for money often don’t have teeth or don’t have good oral hygiene and cannot actually eat a granola bar. Nor can they eat apples, healthy sandwiches, and other food items that I would prefer to give them rather than cash that I fear they may spend on alcohol. I’ve settled by providing Nutrigrain bars and similar soft yet somewhat nutritious food items that I can keep in the car.
My story shows how there is an element of paternalism in the way that we approach the homeless. We assume we know what is best for them and provide what we think they need, we don’t always take into consideration what they can actually use, carry with them, and what they would prefer. For me, this has been a learning process to be more useful with my support, even if I am still not giving them money which would be most useful. However, for many people, homeless people are not seen as deserving of any aid, and consequently those who help them become overly paternalistic. Any aid is provided on the conditions of the donor, with little consideration for the needs of the poor and homeless. If someone won’t take that aid then it further demonstrates that they just are not worthy. I think my experience of trying to give the homeless apples and granola bars demonstrates that this paternalistic approach and calling people unworthy demonstrates the shortcomings of such a view and approach.
The second aspect of Liebow’s quote is that we don’t want homeless to become dependent, so we chose to give them the minimal support necessary to survive. The theory suggests that we shouldn’t allow them to be too comfortable, or they won’t try to fix their own lives. We don’t want to offer them too much support, or they may just come to expect aid and assistance rather than accepting that they must work and be productive. Somehow we think that desperation, starvation, and the pain and shame of homelessness is the right way to get people to work and be productive. We would rather see people wasting away on the streets than living in acceptable conditions and receiving food, money, and shelter provided by the  government. Dependency runs against the American ethos that so many of us adopt, and we are unwilling to help those need beyond the bare minimum that we can do to keep them from dying in the streets.

The Role of Gossip

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson have an interesting idea about gossip in their book The Elephant in the Brain. Instead of seeing gossip as some terrible moral failure on the part of human beings, the authors take a more deep and close look at gossip to try to understand just what is taking place. By understanding the role gossip plays, the authors are able to provide a more concrete reason for why we gossip.


They write, “Among laypeople, gossip gets a pretty bad rap. But anthropologists see it differently. Gossip–talking about people behind their backs, often focusing on their flaws or misdeeds–is a feature of every society ever studied. And while it can often be mean-spirited and hurtful, gossip is also an important process for curtailing bad behavior, especially among powerful people.”


Some discussions are hard to have out in the open. It is hard to go around openly asking people if the president’s behavior is crossing a line and is inappropriate. It is hard to openly ask the office if a co-worker’s clothing is unacceptable, and it is hard to openly ask the world if someone else is trying to do something just to show off. If we are on the wrong side in these situations, we can look really bad ourselves, and we can be very embarrassed if our opinions and ideas are rejected by the rest of the group.


Instead of putting ourselves out in a vulnerable place, gossip allows us to test the waters. We can quietly get a sense of other people’s opinions and ideas without actually revealing our thoughts and ideas completely. We can start to moderate our ideas and opinions and update our model of what is and is not acceptable, tolerable, or popular at a given time. Gossip lets us connect with others in a way that broad publicity does not. It can encourage social bonding between small groups within larger groups and it can help enforce the norms that our culture develops. These can all be positive and negative aspects of gossip, but it happens because we live in a complex and confusing world where we develop opinions socially as opposed to just individually. Sometimes, we need some cover to develop opinions that align with our social group to reduce our vulnerability to attack and isolation.