November 23, 2000
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The New York Times today launches on the front of its metro section its 89th annual appeal for its Neediest Cases Fund. The article says the appeal will begin on Sunday, but in fact the appeal effectively begins today with the article on the metro front and with a box inside the metro section telling readers where they can send their donation checks.
On the surface, the Neediest Cases Fund sounds like a wonderful idea -- a newspaper rolling up its sleeves and doing something to help the poorest of the poor during the holiday season. What could be wrong with that?
Well, the best explanation came from Heather Mac Donald, in a wonderful article she wrote in City Journal a few years ago about the Times Neediest Cases Fund. The article is available on the Internet by clicking here, and it is worth taking some time to sit down and read in full. Ms. Mac Donald traces how the Times fund began as an appeal on behalf of the deserving poor and has been transformed into "an agnostic regarding individual responsibility and a strident advocate of the welfare state."
She writes: "The Neediest Cases Fund still accomplishes wonderful things: it rehabilitates the disabled, sends handicapped children to camp, and buys glasses for nearly blind widows. But its unwillingness to render judgment on self-destructive behavior is part of a moral climate that has done real and lasting harm to the poor. Elite opinion contributed to the creation of today's underclass and must take some responsibility for reforming it. It is not enough to change welfare programs, to let responsibilities devolve to states and localities, to emphasize work over entitlement. We must once again start to draw moral distinctions in our public discourse -- to praise virtue and blame vice. In this all-important task of cultural renewal, the Times continues to stand squarely in the way, stubbornly clinging to the destructive views it has done so much to disseminate."
For a case in point, check out today's Neediest Cases Fund story, which focuses on Randy Dillard, a father of five. The Times gives the ages of all of Mr. Dillard's children, but it doesn't tell readers how old Mr. Dillard is. In the photograph that runs alongside the story, he looks pretty young to be a father of five. The Times tells us that "Mr. Dillard and his wife separated for the last time in 1996." But the Times also tells us that Mr. Dillard's youngest child is 3 years old. Who is this child's mother, and why isn't the mother taking care of the child so that Mr. Dillard can be out working and supporting the family on his own instead of relying on taxpayers and generous New York Times readers?
An earlier Neediest Cases story about Mr. Dillard that ran on December 19, 1999 reported that he had stopped working in 1994, exhausted his savings in about a year, and then gone on "public assistance," which is the Times' fancy term for welfare. So, this guy has been on welfare since 1995, and he has a 3-year-old child? The article quotes Mr. Dillard saying he is ready "to begin pursuing work again." Fine -- a nod to the work ethic. But hold on a minute. The Times attributes Mr. Dillard's new readiness to work to the fact that "the children have grown older." But might it have something to do with the five-year limit imposed on benefits under the 1996 federal welfare reform act, a welfare reform that the Times hysterically opposed?
The Times tells us that those welfare payments to Mr. Dillard total $981 a month: "His income, he said, is barely enough for food, rent and clothing for the children."
In search of more information about Mr. Dillard -- about the mother, or mothers, of these children or about his age -- Smartertimes.com did a quick hunt through a New York Times online archival database. The 1999 Neediest Cases story came up, but it also didn't give Mr. Dillard's age or any information about the mother. The only other hit in the online archives came in a story from the Times metro section on July 1, 2000. The article, about the opening of a new, nine-screen multiplex "Magic Johnson Theaters" cinema in Harlem, quoted "Randy Dillard, an unemployed brick mason who has five young children." This is almost certainly the same man as the one in today's Neediest Cases article, which identifies Mr. Dillard as the father of five and as having "quit his job as a brick mason." The July 1 Times article quoted Mr. Dillard as complaining that ticket prices at the movie theater, $9.50, were "a little steep." It said that Mr. Dillard didn't expect to patronize the new theater "very often."
If Mr. Dillard wants to go to the movies "very often," or just "often" or even never, that is fine with Smartertimes.com. If he wants to have lots of children with mothers who don't stick around, that's fine too. If he wants to stay at home and take care of those children rather than working -- well, there's lots to be said for stay-at-home parenting, and if money were no object, lots more parents would probably choose that route. But Times readers and taxpayers might think about whether, even in the generous spirit of the holiday season, it makes sense to subsidize this sort of behavior.
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