“So, what do you do?” the well-heeled man asked me.
I was in the middle of munching on a canapé so I held up a finger and continued masticating. As I did so I remembered that, in France, it’s considered rude to ask people what they did for a living. But we weren’t in France.
After washing down my tidbit with a sip of champagne, I answered. “I’m the social services guy for my town. Run the food pantry, help people with the electric bills, stuff like that.”
“Professional do-gooder, huh?” the man said.
“Have halo, will travel.”
“Tell me,” the man said, “Do the people who go to your place deserve the help they’re getting?”
“I don’t understand what you mean,” I lied.
A smug look played across the man’s face. “I mean, do you ever see people loading up on food and driving away in a Cadillac?”
“It happened once,” I said. “But it was an old Cadillac.”
“Lots of those people cheat the system,” the man said. “Welfare queens you know.” Those people?
“A small group of people cheat,” I said. “But most of my clients work, often two jobs.”
“Do you check them out? Run financials?”
“Do you have a cutoff?”
“Everything is on a case by case basis.”
“And our tax money is paying for all this?”
“Actually,“ I said, “Taxes only fund my salary . Everything else is donated. The food, the money, everything.”
“You don’t say?”
“But by helping people out,” he said. “Don’t you think you’re perpetuating their sense of victimhood? Teaching them someone always going to bail them out?”
“That I’m making the problem worse?” I said.
“I’ve heard that argument,” I said. “But it’s an abstraction. I don’t deal in abstraction. I deal with people.”
“You’re ducking the question.”
“Probably,” I said, shrugging.
“I worked hard for everything I have,” the man said. “I don’t like my tax dollars promoting idleness. Too many people today with their hands out, gaming the system.”
“Rich people game the system too,” I said. “Remember those landlords in Manhattan who got tax breaks for not jacking up the rents on moderate income families but then charged full market rates anyway? That’s sort of like welfare fraud.”
“But in many cases,” the man said. “That was perfectly legal.”
“So that’s okay?”
“It’s legal. A businessman would be a fool not to take advantage of the breaks the law provides him.”
“But those very same landlords depend on fire and police services,” I said. “But they make it so those people can’t afford to live in the city they serve.”
“What can I say? Life isn’t fair.”
“True,” I said. “But it could be fairer.”
“If only wishing would make it so,” the man said, smiling as if he had scored a point.
“Is that how you made your money?” I asked. “Wishing you’d be successful?”
“Like I said, I worked very hard to get where I am.”
“Did you make sacrifices?”
“Making life fairer for people requires hard work too, “I said. “And sacrifice. Wishing never made anything so.”
“So, you’re telling me it’s wrong to be successful?”
“Not at all. But do we need 20,000 square foot homes when 10,000 would do nicely? Or a billion dollars when 500 million would suffice?”
The man snorted. ““That sounds like class warfare to me.”
“Ever hear about a billionaire named Chuck Feeney?” I said. “Made his fortune in duty free shops?”
“I think he’s still alive,” I said. “Gave like 99% of his money to charity. Said he hopes that last check he writes bounces. Wants to die broke.”
The man said nothing.
“Listen.” I said. “I’d like a little more money for myself too. But there’s got to be a point where enough is enough. Too many people are poor when they don’t have to be.”
“How old are you?’ the man said.
“And still idealistic,” the man said, shaking his head. “You’re probably too old to learn any better.”
“True,” I said. “But when we reach the end, everything we know or think we know will burn away like summer grass in a wildfire.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Neither do I.”