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.”
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.