Solution or Description?

Being married to a performing singer and university opera director means that I get to meet all sorts of people, ranging from students to retirees, from those who are very creative and interesting to those who are financially very well-off and support the arts, some few of whom are also creative.  I also have been drafted at times to craft various documents, including fund-raising letters, and this has led to some interesting situations. 

Although the university is located in the Utah county with the lowest individual and per family income, with a large rural component, and no heavy industry and only a comparatively few mid-tech or light industrial concerns, several directors of one charitable group absolutely refused to allow the use of those facts in a fund-raising appeal.  Why?  Because, first, they felt it would alienate any executives in the small manufacturing community, because it implied to them a criticism of their wage scales, even though the appeal specifically noted that the small manufacturing community was an exception to the generally prevailing low wage scale.

When I attempted to discuss this with one of the individuals who insisted on deleting the statistics, that individual provided a detailed explanation of how his company paid far higher wages than the local average and how their training program had enabled workers to move from the bottom to the top of the wage scale, all of which was absolutely true.  He then claimed that that low income problem was because of four factors: a local culture that emphasizes large families at a young age; the lack of high-tech manufacturing; a rural economy outside of the city proper; and the fact that “people choose their life-styles.” 

The executive who listed those factors was largely correct in his assessment, and, more than likely, equally correct in assessing how his peers would react, but that assessment didn’t make the problems go away. It did make it more difficult to explain why an organization needs funds for programs to benefit the children of those who are less fortunate without pointing out that more of such families exist in one’s community.  It’s as if some of these more financially fortunate individuals want to deny the reality of a situation while attempting to ameliorate some of the problems caused by that reality.

I’d be the first to admit that people make both good and bad choices, having made some of both myself over the years.  And some bad choices do lead to low incomes and, often, poverty, but the fact remains, after all the rhetoric, that the county does in fact have the lowest per capita and family income in the state, and  not all of that can be explained away by poor choices on the part of individuals.  In addition, children don’t choose their parents, what work those parents do, or what culture exists where the family lives. Geographically isolated small cities and towns without plentiful water supplies will not have much, if any heavy manufacturing.

Unfortunately, the mindset represented by those who didn’t want the facts listed has an impact well beyond local charitable appeals.  Problems of all sorts don’t go away just because there is a “good explanation” for their cause.  Put in a lighter way, one of my friends, a retired engineer, observed that, when the highway department installed a huge sign on the interstate highway stating “Bump Ahead,” the highway types thought they’d solved the problem.  They’d only described it… and solutions have to go beyond description.

7 thoughts on “Solution or Description?”

  1. Alan says:

    I believe this is a true observation and a highly prevalent opinion held by the more pessimistic (or realistic) minded people. Especially by those with little patience for people who complain about their situations without taking action.

    A good example is the number of people who claim they cannot find work. The fact of the matter, often, is that they can find work. They simply refuse to accept it. Because the work doesn’t pay enough, or is located in a place they do not wish to move to. Whatever the reason, they turn down the jobs which are available.

    I find those people deplorable for a number of reasons. Mostly because of my personal situation. Many people consider my family large, I have four children. I had them at a young age. I grew up in a country area where it was some distance to a gas station, let alone anything commercial. And there was no industry.

    Meeting three of the four criteria, I still managed to raise my family without being on the dole in any fashion. I made decisions which improved my place in life, while raising a family. I have a quality education, I received my four year degree and found a profitable job in the power industry.

    By not allowing my circumstances dictate to me how life would proceed, I vastly improved the quality of my life. And that of my children. Accepting that some things would have to be changed or sacrificed to find a better over all situation is something many people seem to do poorly.

  2. Steve says:

    When asking for money it is best to whisper sweet nothings to the donor. Save the hard truths for the time most remote from the next fund raiser or election.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    As long as it’s voluntary private funding, I can’t complain.

    But I can understand why people with money might be more willing to part with it to assist with matters beyond anyone’s control*, than to provide services at a higher level than the choices the populace had made (legitimately, if differently than the prospective donor) would support.

    *living, or continuing to live, in a flood zone, is also a choice.

    Children may not have the ability to implement major choices themselves; but they have always benefitted or suffered from their parent’s choices (although they bear no responsibility for that). “for the children” is used to justify all manner of expensive and intrusive programs, when society would arguably be better served by not going so far in attempting to suppress consequences and thereby creating unreasonable and frequently unsustainable expectations.

    On the flip side, it is said (at least by those arguing in favor of arts education) that including arts in a curriculum improves outcomes in practical areas as well. A skeptic of redistribution (such as myself) _might_ be better persuaded if the “teach a man to fish” argument could be made to show (and held to account accordingly) that the redistribution was a temporary affair aimed at eliminating the need for it rather than enabling a new generation of social workers.

  4. Alan says:

    Off on a bit of at tangent here, but I have to share my wondering with the group. It frequently occurs to me, when seeing some disaster on the news such as flood or tornadoes, to ask: Why do people persist in choosing to live there?

    I understand this is where their family, friends and work is. But take a look around at the costs in material, family and immaterial losses. You live in Tornado Alley, or an island that is routinely hit by hurricanes. Why should society bare the price for people’s continued choice to live there?

  5. That’s a very good question. It’s one thing if you’re talking a disaster in a third-world country where people have few if any choices. It’s another when people in the United States build expensive vacation homes or even primary residences on barrier islands or in mountain areas subject or fire and floods. Perhaps a solution there would be very high insurance requirements for rebuilding. Tornado Alley is another question, however, since I have doubts we could essentially write off three or four states.

    1. Tim says:

      LEM is spot on. It should be insurance premiums. In the UK, local government planning committees have permitted building on known flood plains. After two years of flooding, many insurance companies are refusing cover in some places. And rightly so, so the government has to step in with a cover (probably as it arguably caused the problem).

      However the cover, I believe, is to be funded from a risk budget levied from the insurance companies, so we all suffer in the end.

      Unlike the US, we are getting more strapped for land here in the much overcrowded UK, so I doubt we can reverse this strange policy. It makes you wonder what they do in Holland.

  6. Wine Guy says:

    Or hurricanes: should we abandon most of Florida, large swathes of the Gulf Coast?

    How about Hawaii? After all, there are active volcanoes nearby.

    Wait. The entire Earth is under the threat of a massive and as-yet-unknown meteorite strike.

    This kind of thinking leads to the intrusive ‘it’s for the children’ legislation.

    Getting back on topic, though, ‘Good explanations’ do not lead to solutions for two reasons: 1. no political will by the populace to carry things forward. (aka NIMBY and/or SOP: not-in-my-backyard and/or someone-else’s-problem)
    2. strong disagreement about how to proceed. One prime example: abortion. Even abortion groups concede that reducing the number of women needing abortions would be a good thing. Now… how to reconcile the approaches. Just Say No/Abstinence/Forced Pregnancies vs. widely available birth control/emergency contraception/abortion if needed.

    Humans are as they are: contrary creatures. Just because you put facts in front of them that clearly show a benefit does not mean they will act on it… indeed, they may act against it ‘just because.’

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