Compassionate Leadership

A man named Fred Cuny was murdered by both sides in Chechnya last April. The Russians planted misinformation, indicating that he was a spy, and the Chechens believed it and killed him. Cuny was an American original, a Texan who had made himself into an expert in disaster relief. A private consultant frequently hired by government, Cuny spent his adult life in places like Biafra, Kuwait, Iraq, Somalia and Bosnia. In Chechnya, he was hoping to arrange a ceasefire.

Cuny was a remarkable man; things were obvious to him that were not to other people. He would arrive in a country where millions of people were displaced or starving, look around, and immediately decide where he could do the most good with the resources he had. His insights, as reported by William Shawcross in A Hero of Our Time, New York Review of Books for November 30, 1995, were beautifully direct and simple, almost obvious except that no-one else had arrived at them. For example, in one country he recommended that a relief effort stop flying in blankets, because a local blanket industry was being threatened. The trick, instead, was to support the local industry by getting their blankets to the people who needed them. In other places, he pointed out that food airlifts to the major cities were denuding the countryside and killing local agriculture, because hungry people were deserting the country to pile up in refugee camps around the urban airports. Here the trick was to get the food out into the country and shore up agriculture simultaneously. In Sarajevo he restored water to much of the city by building an aqueduct out of begged and borrowed scraps.

Cuny deserves to be mentioned on the same page with modern martyrs like Gandhi and Dr. King. His death represents yet another triumph of human evil and stupidity. But his loss is a double shame, because Cuny is the man we should have appointed Poverty Czar in this country.

Poverty Czar, you ask. The title isn't serendipitous, but I don't know how else to describe the job. We did have an anti-drug czar back in the Reagan years, if I remember correctly. Anyway, the concept is to create a job with some independence and discretion, immune from day to day politics and therefore with some job tenure as well, for someone with the leadership ability to recommend and implement solutions to our domestic disaster, poverty and homelessness.

As I have said before, there is no fundamental difference between welfare and disaster relief. Poverty in this country is a slow acting disaster, and the only way to avoid seeing it as such is to blame people for their own condition and decide that they do not warrant any help. The legislation ending Aid to Families with Dependent Children--the actual name of the program commonly referred to as "welfare"--was the "Personal Responsibility Act". Of course, in order to do the deed, our legislators had to go one step further, and ignore the children--five million of them--who would be removed from the AFDC program by their actions; these kids didn't choose their parents, so its hard to see the justice in holding them "personally responsible" for their situation.

Social programs which have existed since the New Deal are being characterized as failures, and most of their defenders, sufficiently intimidated, preface each comment with a statement like, "Yes, welfare hasn't worked, but that doesn't mean we have to eliminate it"--a statement I have made many times since the Republicans were elected last November. Well, hell, its impossible to know if an effort failed unless you know what would have happened without it; another way of saying this is that you must know what criteria you are measuring it against. There are still poor people in this country? More people are on welfare than thirty years ago? There are some welfare cheats? Without a control group, its impossible to say that social programs have failed. We can't even agree what the criteria of success would have been. Did Cuny succeed in Bosnia, in Biafra? I would say that he did, according to the modest criteria I believe each of us should apply to our own lives, of calculating a daily balance, asking whom we helped or hurt in the course of each day. Cuny made things better, for at least some people, everywhere he went. There are certainly some people alive today who would not be, if it weren't for Fred Cuny. How many of us can say we did as much?

I believe that the same claim can be made about Aid to Families with Dependent Children, whatever its defaults: there are certainly some children out there who were saved by it. I find it hard to imagine Newt Gingrich, Jesse Helms or the Christian Coalition denying this with any credibility. So, if we can all acknowledge, at least for the sake of argument, that there is at least one child somewhere who was saved by AFDC, the debate shifts to one of two possible alternative grounds: 1. Is the relief effort being handled efficiently, to do the most good for the greatest number with the available resources? or 2. Is the game really worth the candle?

At first blush, these may seem like different versions of the same question, but they could not be more radically different. The first question is, how can we get the maximum benefit for a dollar spent in Bosnia? The second is, why bother spending a dollar to help Bosnia? During the Rwandan genocide, Senator Helms made a derogatory reference to the "Hutus and the Tutus"; the same otherwise respectable attorney and Gramm supporter who daydreamed about extermination camps for the homeless told me on another occasion that the people in Bosnia do not deserve to be helped, because they have been killing each other for centuries. There is a meanness today in our legislators and their supporters; there is an isolationism, reminiscent of the cop I saw in 1970 refuse to stop a biker from beating a hippie and who told me, "We don't care what you do to each other, as long as you leave us alone." Of course, this cruelty is not just reserved for black people or Bosnian Moslems or other strangers abroad; it is coming home to roost, in laws that deny legal residents the benefits that citizens receive, in the Christian Coalition's desire for a "Christian nation", and in poverty-related measures that make the poor or homeless in this country the equivalent of the "Hutus and Tutus" whom Senator Helms desired to die quietly in their own corner without disturbing our moral sleep.

Let me relate this back to Fred Cuny. Last week, yet another little girl was beaten to death by a parent in the city where I live, and the child welfare bureaucracy had known about her, and about the fact that she was abused, for years without doing anything. Scores of opportunities to save her life were missed. And, on the heels of the scandal about this, someone deep in the bureaucracy anonymously leaked to the press a memo from the higher-ups, which said that for every case they opened, the case workers would now be required to close two others. Fred Cuny was all substance, and bureacracies, including the one that ran AFDC, are all process. The process gets exalted over time, and the substance is lost. That agency doubtless had good metrics, because it was cutting its backload, by meaninglessly closing files while kids died. Meanwhile, a guy like Fred Cuny works a miracle for a dollar. The biggest criticism anyone can really level at our AFDC bureaucracy was that it was functioning like the people Cuny told to stop flying in blankets. It would have been extremely refreshing to ask Cuny to apply his extraordinary, compassionate common sense to the problems of poverty and homelessness, and I'm sure he could have done wonders with it. As long as we are willing to spend a buck.