Handouts on Halloween?

31 Oct

I happened to catch today’s “Dear Prudence” advice column on Slate and feel compelled to share as a thought exercise in what you would say if someone came to you with this Halloween quandary:

Dear Prudence,
I live in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country, but on one of the more “modest” streets—mostly doctors and lawyers and family business owners. (A few blocks away are billionaires, families with famous last names, media moguls, etc.) I have noticed that on Halloween, what seems like 75 percent of the trick-or-treaters are clearly not from this neighborhood. Kids arrive in overflowing cars from less fortunate areas. I feel this is inappropriate. Halloween isn’t a social service or a charity in which I have to buy candy for less fortunate children. Obviously this makes me feel like a terrible person, because what’s the big deal about making less fortunate kids happy on a holiday? But it just bugs me, because we already pay more than enough taxes toward actual social services. Should Halloween be a neighborhood activity, or is it legitimately a free-for-all in which people hunt down the best candy grounds for their kids?

—Halloween for the 99 Percent (http://www.slate.com/articles/life/dear_prudence/2014/10/dear_prudence_on_halloween_poor_kids_come_to_trick_or_treat_in_my_neighborhood.single.html)

Your gut reaction? Notice if it’s a thought, feeling or impulse to act. Notice the volume on your reaction–and what in particular you’re reacting to.

… So what would you say if someone asked you your opinion? Here’s how Prudence responded.

Dear 99,
In the urban neighborhood where I used to live, families who were not from the immediate area would come in fairly large groups to trick-or-treat on our streets, which were safe, well-lit, and full of people overstocked with candy. It was delightful to see the little mermaids, spider-men, ghosts, and the occasional axe murderer excitedly run up and down our front steps, having the time of their lives. So we’d spend an extra $20 to make sure we had enough candy for kids who weren’t as fortunate as ours. There you are, 99, on the impoverished side of Greenwich or Beverly Hills, with the other struggling lawyers, doctors, and business owners. Your whine makes me kind of wish that people from the actual poor side of town come this year not with scary costumes but with real pitchforks. Stop being callous and miserly and go to Costco, you cheapskate, and get enough candy to fill the bags of the kids who come one day a year to marvel at how the 1 percent live.

—Prudie

While I’ll admit to finding some satisfaction in Prudie’s unapologetic stance, I think Prudie misses the actual grievance. And her tone makes me cringe (while the contempt may compel “99” to buy more candy and never speak of this again, I doubt it will help “99” to self-reflect and contribute to changing a problematic conversation about entitlement in our society).

So here’s my PS:

Dear Halloween for the 99 Percent,

Thanks for your question. It’s one, I’m sure, that may resonate with others because of a common misunderstanding about “charity” and “social services”: that “fortunate” people subsidize the “unfortunate” already “more than enough.” I invite you to watch this video from Professor Ananya Roy at UC Berkeley’s Blum Center for Developing Economies that explores “Who is Dependent on Welfare” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-rtySUhuokM). If you’re short on time, I’ll summarize the takeaway for you: subsidies for middle-income and wealthy families are exponentially “more substantial [than the] handouts” allocated for poor families. (And, of course, those subsidies are stigma-free. It’s only “welfare” if you’re poor.) In actuality (as opposed to popular prejudice), the taxes you pay flow generously toward your billionaire neighbors a few blocks away, as well as up and down your own street.

So let’s just reset the scenario: since families in your neighborhood are disproportionate beneficiaries of the taxes you pay, your issue seems not to be about giving away more to those who already receive plenty, as it is giving to people who don’t live in your neighborhood. Fair enough. May I ask a few questions?

  • When you call yourself “the 99 Percent,” what do you mean? It’s a pretty big, diverse group that includes the 1.001%, as well as people in the bottom 5%. Like “middle class,” “the 99 Percent” doesn’t tell us much: about ourselves, other people, or the wide-ranging diversity among us. I ask because the kids coming to your neighborhood are also “the 99 Percent,” yet I sense you’re making a distinction between you and them. So perhaps there’s a better way to name yourself to make clear how you see yourself and your position in the spectrum of socioeconomic status.
  • How can you tell which kids are “clearly not from this neighborhood”? Once they’re out of their cars, what marks them as from “less fortunate areas”? Is it the quality of their costumes? The way they talk? The color of their skin?
  • Is your issue with the children, or the parents of the children who drive to your neighborhood? Can you imagine at least three different reasons why they may drive to your street? (I’ll imagine a few: 1. They are venal candy grubbers looking to take advantage of you, 2. Your neighborhood is safe, 3. Your neighborhood has awesome decorations, 4. Your neighborhood has a reputation for being full of kids and lots of fun on Halloween…)
  • Are the cars really “overflowing” with children? I just had to ask.
  • How do you define your neighborhood? Socially, what are the boundaries? In the event of an emergency, how far can you go for help? How are the limits of neighborhood helpful to you and your family? How are they not?

It is, of course, up to you how much candy you buy and how you want to distribute it. And how you want to continue framing the conversation about poverty, wealth, social service, charity and what makes one “fortunate” or “unfortunate.”

Thanks for writing in,

Alison

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