Pride, Privacy, and Assistance

Pride, Privacy, & Assistance

“Margaret said she had known a lot of shelters – crossed the country twice, staying in shelters along the way – and The Refuge was one of the best, mainly because they didn’t pry and didn’t attach conditions to their help. She wanted to keep her private life private, and at The Refuge she could do this,” writes Elliot Liebow about one of the women he profiled for his book on homeless women, Tell Them Who I Am. Being poor and asking for assistance is hard. It is not easy to admit just how needy one is, what mistakes one may have made along the way, and what personal shortcomings one is still struggling to overcome. However in the United States, getting aid often requires going through a series of questions and divulging such personal information to strangers, agencies, and charities before someone is willing to provide assistance.
In the past I have written about our preference for private charity over government provided aid. I suspect that part of the reason we favor private charity is because we can attach more conditions to the aid and ask more questions of those receiving the aid. It would not be fair for the government to place certain restrictions on how aid can be utilized, to require certain actions of those requiring aid, or to ask certain questions of the petitioners. However, many private charities or religious organizations can limit aid for seemingly trivial reasons. For example, first amendment protections mean that the government could not deny someone aid for wearing an offensive t-shirt, but a religious organization could certainly deny someone aid or assistance if they refused to change out of an offensive shirt.
What I think is important to realize from Liebow’s quote is that there is an additional issue beyond charitable strings and limitations that goes with the questioning and lack of agency that people experience when asking for aid. The questions people face are often repetitive, sometimes don’t seem relevant, and can be prying. People lose their sense of privacy and individuality, something most of us prize and assume to be ours by default, similar to how we think of constitutional rights (in some senses privacy is a constitutional right). Liebow continues, “To the petitioner, it is as if the wall of questions that stands between her and life’s necessities is a hurdle to be scaled only by those willing to leave their pride and privacy behind them.”
Many of us have made mistakes that make us cringe when we look back on them. Hopefully most of us have appropriately processed what went wrong and learned from our mistakes, but nevertheless, we don’t normally like to think back on our worst moments. We certainly don’t like to have people bring those moments up over and over and ask us to keep reliving them or remembering them. Even if we have accepted our mistakes and learned important lessons, we want to leave those mistakes in the past and move forward. The continual questioning and lack of privacy for those in needs means they can never move forward from their mistakes. They become defined by their errors, poor judgement, past laziness, previous drug use, and any other potential cause of their poverty and homelessness. They can’t move forward because they need help and can’t receive help unless they are willing to give up any privacy and pride and live within their worst histories. The questioning and limitations we place on aid seem harmless and sensible to the donor, but to those who need aid for daily survival, it can be humiliating and make everything feel much more difficult for them. “It is difficult to appreciate the intensity of feeling, the bone-deep resentment that many of the women felt at always having to answer questions,” Liebow wrote.

The Ego and Fairness

I am constantly interested in discussions, arguments, and complaints about fairness. Dictionary.com defines fair as “free from bias, dishonesty, and injustice” but I think we all know “fair” to be more complex than that definition suggests. What I suspect we often mean when we say fair is equitable, which is a far more complex understanding of the world, events, people, and our interactions with all three. Another quick Google search gives us a definition of equitable as fair and impartial (not much help here), but Deborah Stone in her book Policy Paradox identifies nine different dimensions of equity. Things can be equitable by membership, so  that something is equal among a group, but not necessarily equal between groups. Things can be equitable by rank, where different segments within a group receive different treatment, but within a given segment everyone receives something equally. And things can also be equitable based on how they are distributed, with people all having equal chances of obtaining something or with people having equal opportunities to try to obtain something.

 

What got me thinking again about fairness and equity is a quote from Ryan Holiday in his book Ego is the Enemy. He writes “Ego loves this notion, the idea that something is “fair” or not. Psychologists call it narcissistic injury when we take personally totally indifferent and objective events. We do that when our sense of self is fragile and dependent on life going our way all the time. Whether what you’re going through is your fault or your problem doesn’t matter, because it’s yours to deal with right now.” What I take away from this quote is the idea that (1) we spend a lot of our time and energy trying to figure out if we deserve something or not, (2) we feel personally injured or attacked when something we deem to be unfair happens to us, and (3) we often don’t have much control over whether we receive what we deserve or not.

 

I started with a definition of fairness because I think it is important to get to the root of what we mean when we say something is not fair. We want our life outcomes and the things that happen to us to be commensurate (corresponding in size or degree) with the kind of valuable person we see ourselves to be. We want good things to happen to us and other good people, and we want bad things to happen to bad people as if our lives are constantly judged and adjusted by an independent arbiter weighing our live on a balance.

 

However, I introduced Stone’s perspectives on equity to show that fairness is not a simple black and white consideration. Sometimes, equity depends on your position relative to society and the events within society that impact you. Would it be fair for everyone in your office to get an equal sized slice of cake on your birthday? Should you get the biggest slice because its your birthday? Should your boss get the biggest slice because they are the big kahuna and after all, if they had not hired you then you would not be there celebrating your birthday with everyone? Or should Cheryl get a bigger slice of cake since she was technically the company’s founder years ago, even though now she mostly sits in her office half asleep not really doing much? There are a lot of dimensions of equity and fairness that are hard to sort through, especially when our own self-interest is involved.

 

When we begin to complain that something is not fair, we should take a minute to step back and think about the various dimensions of equity and try to understand what aspects of equality are in play. Rather than focusing on whether we think we have been harmed, we should try to better understand the system within which we operate. Going further, we should recognize that we have little to no control over many of the things that happen in our lives. We cannot control a cancer diagnosis (for the most part), we cannot control whether a texting teen rear ends our car, and we don’t always have as much control over our income as we would like to believe. Sitting and constantly questioning why something happened to us, complaining that things are not fair, and arguing that something more fair should have occurred is useless. Often, there are different aspects of equity at play (if a social decision has lead to the outcome we don’t like) or we are trying to ascribe meaning to a random event over which we had little influence or ability to shape and avoid. We can think of what happened to us rationally, and then move on without having to critique the abstract universal balancer that we would like to have watching over our lives and adjusting our scales accordingly.

 

Remaining focused on whether something is fair and complaining that it is not fair will hold back us and our society. To move forward we must accept that fairness and equity are more complex than they feel in the moment, and we must accept that we have less control in our lives than we often believe. We can do our best with the hand we are dealt, and if we do not think that something is equitable, we can examine the ideas laid out by Stone to advocate for a different dimension of equity. Or if we don’t have any control over the event we can bear our situation nobly and move forward without feeling personally injured.