Helping people sounds easy - until you try to do it

Sep 17 2011 - 11:10pm


A friend on Facebook read last Sunday's column about Shelly Roche getting help from my readers to set up a day care business (thanks!) and said, "This shows we don't need government to help each other."

Quite the opposite. We need government, or something like it, to dole out charity more than ever. Shelly's case is the very rare exception.

Shelly's problem was unique, and her solution particularly time-sensitive. The paper had already run her letter to the editor asking for help, and the minimal amount of checking I was able to do backed up her story, so I took a chance.

But it was a chance.

Whether that chance pays off, time will tell. I hope Shelly succeeds and pays back the loan she received.

But I can't guarantee it. I'm going on trust here.

This is the problem. Verifying that someone really needs help is a lot of work; it requires checking documents and records and doing interviews. A system based on "just help people who need help" is going to run into trouble fast.

That's why government is such a huge bureaucracy. Most aid programs started out simple. Then people see problems, the solutions mean adding rules, and there you are.

For example, Florida is horrified that people might use welfare money to buy drugs, so it now demands all applicants for welfare be tested, at their own expense.

A whopping 2 percent have tested positive. Florida reimburses those who test negative, and so far, it is spending more on testing than it is saving on welfare.

But Florida, which is run by small-government, cut-spending conservatives, wants to be sure. So it expanded government and increased spending.

My own inability to check people thoroughly is one reason I try to avoid writing about specific people in need. Picking one case to give newspaper exposure to is unfair to the others equally deserving.

Plus, some people need help more than others. Some can only give a little help. Others can give a lot. Coordinating all that help is a monster job.

Fortunately, government agencies and private charities do that job. Government may not find all the crooks or weed out all the freeloaders, but it's a lot better at it than you or I.

So are charities.

After Sunday's column, I got two calls from people looking for rental and moving assistance.

I gave both the number of Catholic Community Services, 801-394-5944, a marvelous group that helps with food, rent and housing problems. If CCS can't help you, then Director Marcie Valdez, who used to work for the Red Cross, knows who can.

I obviously can't say I'll never do stories on specific cases, but they must be rare or the paper would carry nothing else.

I would rather steer people to agencies that can help them and ask you to donate to those same agencies.

But you don't need to call me. Pick up the phone and dial 211.

That is a statewide referral service to every human service agency in the state. Those agencies employ professional caseworkers who can sort through every need, direct people to counseling, financial help or mental health services, or just provide a shoulder to cry on.

You may get bounced around a bit, but if you take the time to learn the system, there are a lot of good people out there who will help.

Wasatch Rambler is the opinion of Charles Trentelman. You can call him at 801-625-4232 or email He also blogs at

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