The deserving versus the undeserving

Original Reporting | By Eric Kroh |

May 11, 2011 — Since the Texas winter wildfire season began last November, some 2.4 million acres have charred. State officials, including Gov. Rick Perry, have said the devastation is unprecedented. Unseasonably high temperatures, low humidity, and high winds have combined to produce nearly 10,000 fires, forcing hundreds of people from their homes. The cost of the response effort is nearing $100 million.

In April, Perry, a Republican who is a fierce advocate for “states’ rights,” wrote a letter to President Obama requesting a federal major disaster declaration for nearly the entire state, which would make it eligible for additional federal assets to supplement state resources.

Families sometimes take extraordinary measures to cover important costs such as education or health care, such as working second jobs or dipping into savings. Couldn’t Texas take a similar approach to raising funds?

Certainly, Texas is no stranger to federal assistance. Since the beginning of wildfire season, the state has received some $25 million in grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to cover some of the estimated $84 million in costs accrued by the state in responding to the fires. According to FEMA data, Texas has also received nearly $250 million in the past decade in grants to provide training and equipment for fire departments and to help them recruit more firefighters.

But earlier this month, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) denied Perry’s request, provoking criticism from the governor. “I am dismayed that this administration has denied Texans the much needed assistance they deserve,” Perry said in a May 3 statement. “It is not only the obligation of the federal government, but its responsibility under law to help its citizens in times of emergency.”

Perry’s disapproval of the Obama administration’s decision was joined by similar responses from several other Texas lawmakers, including Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, and Rep. Mike Conaway — all Republicans.

The lawmakers were among those who have made the most forceful calls for reduced government spending. Faced with the real-world consequences of their budget-cutting ideology, however, it appears that those calls may have applied only insofar as their constituents were not affected.

“When nearly 7,000 individual wildfires burn through more than 2.2 million acres, result in loss of life, and destroy homes, businesses, farms and ranches across the state, it’s hard to understand how these conditions don’t spell ‘disaster’ for this Administration,” Cornyn said in a May 4 statement. “We’ve yet to enter the hottest months of the year and already wildfires have wreaked havoc in Texas — yet our state has not received sufficient federal disaster aid.”

Conaway also issued a statement saying FEMA’s decision would endanger recovery efforts and cause further harm to individuals affected by the fires. “Without federal assistance, these communities will suffer immense challenges and obstacles as they attempt to rebuild and recover from this disaster,” he said May 4.

The Texas lawmakers’ pleas for additional federal resources, however, are at odds with their voting records, in which they supported cuts in funding for federal disaster assistance.


Cuts and more cuts

In April, a shutdown of the federal government was averted with mere minutes to spare when the Obama Administration agreed to GOP-demanded cuts representing a $40 billion reduction in spending compared with the previous year (more than the GOP House leadership had even originally requested).

Shortly thereafter, Obama praised what he called the “largest annual spending cut in our history.”

The spending agreement reflected Republican priorities. It cut funding for the Environmental Protection Agency by $1.6 billion, a 16 percent reduction from the previous year; some $3 billion was cut from a high-speed rail program; and a ban on using federal and local funds to pay for abortions in Washington was reinstated. At the same time, the spending bill managed to increase Department of Defense funding by $5 billion.

Hutchison called the budget resolution a “down payment toward meaningful deficit reduction” in an April 14 statement.

“In the coming debates on runaway federal spending and the mounting debt, we’ll be dealing with cuts in the trillions, not billions,” Hutchison said. “I look forward to finally setting our nation on a fiscally responsible track.”

In addition to the above cuts, however, the budget agreement also cut resources meant to mitigate and respond to disasters such as the Texas wildfires. In fact, prior to asking for federal assistance to help with the wildfires, Texas lawmakers voted to cut hundreds of millions of dollars for federal disaster response programs.

A historical perspective on who “deserves” aid — part 1

Observing the apparent disjunction between generalized calls for reductions in federal aid and support for such aid when it helps locally, Remapping Debate sought some historical perspective.  We turned to Benjamin Soskis, a writer and independent scholar living in Washington. Soskis, a recent Columbia Ph.D., is currently working on a project on what he calls the “suspicion of giving” in American thought.

He began by noting that the split between regarding individuals in unfortunate circumstances as either “deserving” or “undeserving” goes back “a long way, at least to the 15th century.” It was a duality that continued.

In the 1830s, for example, we find increasing calls to look more carefully at who is receiving support, Soskis said, and “to decide which of those groups are actually deserving based on their capacity to work, and which groups aren’t. And that line of argument continues up through the New Deal, to welfare reform. It’s a longstanding way of thinking about the poor.”

In the 1870s, in the wake of natural disasters, and there was strong, but not universal, support for the idea that the categories of deserving and undeserving should be “put on hold to some extent” in that context. Even then, however, “you still have people saying, be very careful about giving money” because of a fear of the consequences, a fear of creating dependence.

Soskis describes the “suspicion of giving” as a hardy perennial in American thought, although, “after all the major financial panics or recessions of the 1870s and 1890s, there was a sort of reappraisal of this idea that individuals were responsible for their own economic condition. But in every occasion…the argument that somehow the poor were indeed responsible for their economic plight managed to survive real critical challenges.”

Indeed, Soskis describes the view in the 1870s that “the real cause of wide scale poverty was excessive charity, that things wouldn’t be so bad if people didn’t hold out private charity and public relief to the poor.  [If they hadn’t, the crises] would have passed, and people would have managed to pull up their bootstraps and keep on working.”

We asked Soskis about the impact of the Great Depression on this line of thought. The argument, he said, became “very difficult to make,” although, he pointed out, some people did continue to make it at the time. “It’s interesting to think of the economic and environmental catastrophes sort of converging in the 20s and early 30s.  In some extent, I think that helped people understand that some of these economic forces at work were really extracted from any individual decision.”

Continued on next page.

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