Op-Ed: Caring for the Stranger

Paying taxes is one of those accepted, if distasteful, responsibilities of adult life.

Not a few homeowners roll their eyes upon reading their semi-annual property tax bill. The looming income tax deadline has families compiling financial documents for the ultimate reckoning of what’s “mine” and what’s “theirs.”

But we all accept that being part of “We the People” means that we pool a portion of our individual resources in the hope that the money will be allocated by our representatives to “provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

This year is the 30th anniversary of the publication of “The Needs of Strangers: An Essay on Privacy, Solidarity, and the Politics of Being Human” (MacMillan, 1984), a brief but important book by Michael Ignatieff. He points out that humans have two different kinds of needs: the basic material ones for food, clothing and shelter, and the intangible longing for respect, love, recognition and social inclusion.

Government cannot legislate the intangibles; it cannot force people to love one another. But it can do much to foster an atmosphere of solidarity and cohesion.

“Respect and dignity depend on whether entitlements are understood to be a matter of right, a matter of deserving, or a matter of charity,” Ignatieff writes. With government stepping in when necessary, no longer does a struggling individual have to worry about “the fickle mercy of sons and daughters or the uncertain charity of philanthropy.” Because it does not come in the sometimes-condescending form of a gift, such assistance is cleaner and more dignified. 

By itself, however, government aid tends to create a “society of strangers,” where the meeting of needs is mediated through impersonal bureaucracies. This is where the rest of us come in to provide those intangibles, reaching out to neighbors with a smile and handshake, trusting that the economic safety net is firm.

As we direct our elected officials in their stewardship of our tax dollars, it is important to consider whether their proposals and priorities strengthen or weaken our sense of belonging. Do deep cuts to social service programs, made in the name of nurturing self-reliance, actually increase atomization?

This is not an academic question. I have recently come to know a 10-year Wilmette resident, a veteran and former restaurateur. After the coach house he lived in was torn down, he moved into an apartment where he can remain independent, thanks to a $200 per month rental subsidy from the Village’s Housing Assistance Program. He felt the “rug pulled out” from him when the Village decided last October to end the 35-year-old program, whose $45,000 annual budget helps two-dozen seniors and people with disabilities.

The bottom has also dropped out of his sense of self-worth. Angry and feeling helpless, he has been hospitalized with heart problems.

Responding to an uproar from residents (and Open Communities, the organization I direct), the Village Board appointed a committee to look into turning the program into a private fund, without taxpayer support. With leases soon ending, the committee quickly directed the Village to solicit charitable donations. So today, you can click on a PayPal button on the Village of Wilmette’s web site and learn that for $200, you “can help keep one more longtime Village resident in their home as a contributing member of our community.”

But however it is couched, it looks like a collective abnegation of responsibility. As one resident testified previously to the committee, it is “immoral” for the Village to make lives hang in the balance of a private “whim.”

By eroding the safety net, we alienate ourselves from one another, and something inside all of us is diminished.

Next time you pay your taxes, think about the social compact that underlies this not always pleasant task. This compact expresses our humanity, our sense of being in this together. It is the essence of what makes us a community, rather than a society of strangers.


Gail Schechter is Executive Director of Open Communities, a leading voice for housing, economic and social justice in north suburban Chicago, working to promote inclusive communities that are welcoming to all.


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