Response to Humanism and the Welfare State, J. Calvin Chatlos

I am approaching this subject from my own perspective – that of a physician trained in a State Hospital, a pediatrician trained and having worked in New York City hospitals, and a psychiatrist having worked in major City and State hospitals, where about 70-80% of my patients were on welfare.  Therefore, my comments and ideas will not be from a broad political sphere but from a personally human sphere, focusing on ideas related to human needs and motivations.

I hope to accomplish two things: first, to look at one important aspect at the welfare system that in Rev. Hemstreet’s paper needs to be balanced, and secondly, to look at ourselves, how we, as Humanists, address this issue of welfare and the state. In the course of this, I will look at the concepts of sympathy and empathy that are important in understanding the subjective aspects of our own approach to this issue.

As a physician, I am used to viewing a problem as a clinical exercise, since life is indeed an experiment, and we usually use case illustrations. I would like to present three situations to keep in mind as I comment on Rev. Hemstreet’s paper.

1. A housewife in her mid-30’s, middle class, college educated, in a rural or urban setting, ex-school teacher who has three young kids, whose husband leaves her and is unemployed, drinks heavily, and provides no child support. When she tries to work, but child care becomes impossible with a 2 year old child with asthma. She ends up on welfare to pull her life together and prevent a downward spiral. She later tries to work again, but actually loses dollar for dollar from welfare benefits, so it’s easier to remain on welfare.

2. At 12 midnight, a single mother comes to the Emergency Room with three kids to see a pediatrician. “What’s wrong?” he asks. “They have a sniffle and I wanted them checked out.” “All of them?” “No, mainly one, and then maybe she is getting it too, but I thought you could check out the other one too.” The doctor asks “Did you check their temperature?” “No!” “Have you tried any medicines?” “No!”

When found to have a cold, the physician was curious and asked why she would bring the kids here and wait for two hours rather than go to a pharmacy for cough medicines. Her answer: “If I go to a pharmacy, I have to pay for the medicines,” The cost of this would have been about $8., but the cost to Medicaid of her visit, at about $75 per child, was $225, plus reinforcing the idea of not taking care of these problems herself.