Showing a little kindness isn’t a character defect

The nice story about the reaction of people who pitched in to help a guy who has walked 21 miles for work in Detroit every day can’t just be a nice story about people pitching in to help a guy who has walked 21 miles for work in Detroit every day.

There’s a subtle belittling of the effort by those who favor better transportation options for people, as if people can’t stop a wound from bleeding and try to stop a shooting war, too.

First, comes the humanity, policy wonks.

When I first wrote the story earlier this week — a certain “well, that’s nice but…” response suggested a misplaced effort on the part of people anxious to do something.

Grist provides a similar reaction today with its article, “Buying this guy a car was nice. Buying a mass transit system would be way nicer.”

What the Detroit region needs is a comprehensive sustainable communities policy package. Suburbs must be required to participate in regional mass transit systems, to loosen their zoning regulations, and to build apartments that accept Section 8 housing vouchers for low-income people. The Obama administration has been trying to assist local governments on these kinds of issues through its Partnership for Sustainable Communities. But all they do is offer a carrot — some minimal funding through competitive grant programs via the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development. The federal government has not required any such improvements or penalized failure to adopt them.

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, have cut funding for Section 8 vouchers and for some smart growth–friendly programs like competitive transportation (TIGER) grants. They are unwilling to raise revenues to pay for transportation infrastructure. And conservative activists, backed by fossil fuel oligarchs like the Koch brothers, are exerting pressure on Republicans right now not to raise the gas tax precisely because some of the money would go to mass transit.

But without changes in policy at the local, state, and federal level, a lot more people will keep suffering as James Robertson has.

All debatable points, neutered by its introduction suggesting that “only in America would we assume that Robertson’s 46-mile commute is the natural order of things and the problem is that some people don’t have cars.”

Arrogant, much?

Charing Ball at Madame Noir doubles down.

In a sense, charity becomes an exercise in meritocracy as opposed to a matter of addressing someone’s alleged immediate need(s). And it also tends to ignore what is the larger concern here, which is income inequality. The crime here is that Robertson has to travel 46 miles round trip from home to a township, in which he probably can’t even afford to live, just to work a job that only pays him $10 an hour. The secondary crime here is that in 2015, public transportation in some parts of America is virtually non-existent. The secondary and primary crimes here often work in cahoots at keeping poor people, poor. And in lots of instances, it is by design. But instead of thinking about why there are jobs targeted to grown men and women in places that they can’t afford to live, which pay less than livable wages (and trying to fix that), we blame the people for not crawling low enough.

Now, I’m not saying Robertson shouldn’t take the money if he really needs it. If he really needs it, heck yeah, take the money. However, I really hope that those who donated won’t start trippin’ if six months down the line, we find out that homeboy is still walking to work because he decided to take that once-in-a-lifetime trip to Vegas instead of buying himself a new car. Hell, after taxes, gas, insurance and upkeep, I wouldn’t blame him one bit if he decided to take that car money and bet it all on black.

Unquestionably, the situation in Detroit involves a poor transportation system caused by poor planning and fair amount of corruption in Detroit. And an economic structure. And racial inequity. Where do you want to start?

No matter how many condescending “I’m smarter than you” articles transportation advocates write, the reality is that by the end of the workday today, we can’t build a transportation system in Detroit or anywhere else. We can help a guy who — for reasons still unexplained — feels a sense of loyalty to an employer who barely pays him a living wage.

We can help put a human face on a policy problem. And we can do so without needing to apologize for it.

We do so for the same reasons we feed a homeless person when he/she is hungry. Because it’s all we can do at the moment and it’s the right thing to do.

That’s not a character defect.

Are there thousands of people in the same position? Absolutely, as the Detroit Free Press points out in its article today.

Grist says the story is one of transportation. It’s so much more than that, columnist Rochelle Riley wrote without belittling her readers to make the point.

Our James Robertsons represent all races and genders and ages, and they face massive obstacles to full-time jobs: transportation, child care, a level of literacy needed to get a job.

What Robertson did was stop and make us see him, really see him. We need to do that for every person whose path to self-reliance may be blocked by a single obstacle.

We have to make our elected leaders see the James Robertsons as individuals, as the mother who rode five buses a day to ensure that her children had a good school and she had a good job, as a father who travels from Detroit to Sterling Heights and back to work as a mechanic.

Robertson’s story touched people around the country.

I hope we all remember that feeling when the governor tries to do what a motivated Wayne State University student did: Make it easier for someone who wants to work to get to work.

In the nature of goodness, we do what we can. And ignore those who tell us it doesn’t do any good.

  • davehoug

    So how would this story differ if he was in a rural area, same facts but no demand to improve public transit???

  • Thanks Bob. Great piece.

  • Tim

    I said it earlier this week and I’ll say it again now: it doesn’t have to be either/or. It’s a false dichotomy. My hope is that the people that when people help someone out like this, which is a good thing to do, that they also think about the larger picture and the forces that create these situations.

    • The assumption in these pieces that is they don’t. That’s absurd assumption but that’s the mindset that writes “only in America….”.

  • Kassie

    I’m missing something. Somehow half way through this post his 21 mile commute becomes a 46 mile commute.

    • Blame Madame Noir.

    • Katy

      His whole commute is 46 miles. He walks 21 of them. The other miles are the ones he covers while on the bus.

  • Jim G

    Charity is a good character trait to develop. Never let anyone call you a chump for helping out someone hurting or in need. If you do contribute to well-documented nonprofits serving your communities you can multiply the effectiveness of your charity. However, we should also build and maintain well-functioning transportation systems in all our so-called modern cities. To say it’s one or the other is very short-sighted.

    • Jack

      My, my there is lots of snow in Detroit.
      “If you do contribute to well documented nonprofits serving your communities you can multiply the effectiveness of your charity.”
      Who starts these nonprofits? It takes lots of loose bureau change lying around to start one, for one point, and who sponsors them, for two, and thirdly, who sits on the Boards? As Bob has noted without belittling, if money was spread around fairly; that is, fair wage and labor exchange we wouldn’t have the need for nonprofits or as many nonprofits.
      Privatizing public aid can make help incredibly selective.

      • The answer to the question was in the story I posted yesterday. A Wayne State University student. Because, you know, kids today, eh?

        • Jack

          So how does banker Pollock know Student Wayne State?
          The conclusion drawn here that all bankers are generous?

          • Jack, go back and read the story please.

          • Jack

            I deduckt:
            People who, coincidentally for the past 10 to 15 years, have run into bad luck and unfavorable circumstances that have unfortunately drained their bank accounts along with any savings should start an Online Donation for the Happenstance of Ms Fortune for themselves?
            You wrote two articles pertaining to Walking Man yesterday.

      • Jim G

        As a former local teachers’ union president, I whole heartedly endorse fair wages and a fix to our broken American economic system which rewards capital more than American workers. As a remnant of the middle class who believes that “bureau change” can add up to respectable sums, I assert that you too can be a benefactor. One doesn’t have to be in the one percent to contribute to worthwhile causes.

        • Jack

          Thank you for pointing that out. I would have never thought of it.

  • kcmarshall

    We’re told by some that government intervention to improve the lives of people isn’t necessary because other forces (charity, the market) will solve the problem. So there *is* an ‘either/or’ at work here.

  • David W.

    The few hundred thousand dollars being charitably given to one is pretty much chump change to a transit system the size of Detroit’s. The attention this guy’s story is getting is doing much good by publicizing the overall dilemma being faced by Detroit and people who need a way to get to work. So I see it as a win-win story myself.

  • Gary F

    Oh! It’s the Koch Brothers fault! Time for the 2 minutes of hate!

  • Paul F

    I think Pollock makes a great point, and is something that many of the articles are ignoring, about Robertson’s character. It is what makes this story stand out from any other – beyond any measure he still maintains what he needs to do and has for 10 years.