Commentary: Helping children in poverty

May 7, 2012

Two weekends ago, I went to something called the Bow-Wow brunch, at an upscale hotel in suburban Detroit. The purpose was to raise money to support the Michigan Humane Society.

That’s a cause I care about. I think the Humane Society does a superb job and has been the target of sometimes unfair criticism. I have had dogs my entire adult life, and our Australian Shepherd is very much a full member of our family.
 His idea of animal abuse is to have to wait for a walk until I am done with this commentary. But there was something about the Bow Wow brunch and auction that made me slightly uneasy. There were a lot of really rich people bidding on really expensive items.

One woman paid eleven thousand dollars to have her dog’s picture on the cover of next year’s Humane Society calendar.

Another consoled herself by paying six thousand to have her dog’s picture on the inside cover. In case you are wondering, I remained faithful to my economic status, and paid fifty bucks for a nice little clock nobody else seemed to want.

What bothered me wasn’t that all this money was being spent to help the humane society. I think my alter ego, Elizabeth, defined it perfectly when we were driving home. “What do you think would happen if they had something like this to benefit kids in Detroit?“

“Do you think these people would spend this kind of money?“  We both knew the answer. That’s not to say that some of the Bow Wow crowd haven’t also  helped the poor. But somehow, homeless dogs and cats seem to tug at many of our heartstrings the way poor people of color don’t.

I really don’t know why. Possibly it is because human interactions are complex and outcomes uncertain. If I give the humane society money to feed homeless animals and give them care, I know there will be an easily seen, positive result.

I think people aren’t as convinced they can do anything for other people in distress, or that their money will be used wisely. What nobody can deny is that there is an incredible need. The morning after the bow-wow event, a new report revealed a significant increase in the number of low birth-weight babies in Michigan. The study, released by the non-profit Michigan League for Human Services, said ten thousand of these too-small, high-risk babies are now born every year in Michigan.

There’s also been a dramatic increase in babies born to single mothers, a figure now more than forty percent.

My guess is that things are unlikely to get better soon. Last October, nearly thirty thousand kids were in families from which our state cut off cash assistance for life. Somehow I don’t think things are getting better for them. I fear many are going to live Thomas Hobbes sorts of lives -- nasty, brutish and short.

I wish some rich society ladies would hold a brunch to benefit them. Albert Camus, a philosopher I prefer to Hobbes, once said, “perhaps we cannot prevent this from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. And if you do not do this, who will?

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.