The Virtuous Sector

The greatest tragedy of the modern welfare state is that we have allowed it to deprive us of a fundamental opportunity to practice virtue, responsibility generosity and compassion”

Arianna Huffington, wife of GOP politician Michael, as quoted in the March 21 issue of Time

And so we learn that the welfare state stifles not merely economic initiative, but spiritual initiative as well.

I reflect both on this twist on the public sector-private sector debate and the complex path by which we come to our beliefs as I watch Kathy, a resident of the Lakeview manor public housing development, make baby-sitting arrangement for her neighbor’s autistic child.

When not coordinating baby-sitting for other single parents, she attends an on-site GED program and sees an on-site therapist. She is also a volunteer van driver for other carless tenants, helps with clothing drives and keeps the boos for the Sunshine fund, an informal pool of tenant money that helps the least fortunate of the less fortunate.

Kathy reflects the spirit of self-improvement and charity that infuses this remarkable development, bless-deep in receivership from the Weymouth Housing Authority.

For tenants at Lakeview Manor, decision-making power and responsibility blend seamlessly with employment opportunities and support services. The result is affordable housing that works.

A study that has tracked each household since the advent of a 1986 tenant-management partnership documents a dramatic and consistent drop in rental arrears; lower operating costs than comparable public housing statewide; and personalized counseling and training referral services that have gotten residents off welfare and into the job market.

But Lakeview Manor is not just a place of material efficiency. The spirit of giving, the profound yet commonplace assumption that one wants to help. Permeates every fiber of its low-income tenant leadership. A remarkable network of tenant-initiated, mutual-help efforts form a mosaic of giving: clothing swap days, blood drives, volunteer appreciation diners, peer leadership sessions, welcome wagons, free lunch programs and volunteer tutoring are some of the ways in which these tenants rise to one another’s occasions and meet one another’s needs. They are not too poor to give. They give because they, too, are poor.

Is this success story-in-progress proof of the Huffington thesis about spiritual privatization?

To be sure, the tenants at Lakeview Manor benefit from the tender ministrations of Maloney Properties, a respected private-sector management firm with whom they share decision-making power.

And yet the educational, therapeutic and vocational self-help that is the foundation of their charitable efforts all emanate from the public sector. The GED program is free, and the co-payment for the professional therapist is a nominal $2. Both use federal funds provided by the Town of Weymouth. In case after case, their individual initiative is made possible by a latticework of public-sector efforts, the spiritual trampoline beneath the material safety net.

Indeed, Lakeview is in receivership to the sate, not exactly a private party. And the state, to its credit, has never abandoned its promise to keep Lakeview affordable. With an average family income under $14,000, privatization without public obligation is chaos, ruin, despair.

Tenants like Katy know this. They have no ideological illusions about the vulnerable patchwork of programs and political premises that undergrid their modest success. They know that the poor, no less than the rich, require public effort to sustain and improve their lot.

Like construction workers reviewing their handiwork, they know where the welds are.

Residents like Kathy embody contradictions and frustrate easy radicalism, but they come to their righteousness of necessity, full of the complexities of people who know well the imperfections of the public sector as well as its absolutely necessity. Huffington and her considerable ilk, on the other hand, have no such internal confusion. She comes to her virtuous certainty by a path well trod and narrow.

She married inherited wealth.