Election 2014: Got Compassion Deficit Fatigue?

Joan Venocchi asks in today’s Globe whether Charlie Baker has a compassion deficit.

Charlie himself thinks the answer is no (as an aside, who among us would admit to a compassion deficit?), and his campaign is eager to recount vignettes of the candidate’s personal generosity. But, as Venocchi says, the appropriate question for voters is Baker’s view of the proper role of government in helping the needy.

Baker flunked a compassion pop quiz of sorts in his campaign four years ago when he said that anyone seeking help from a homeless shelter in the state should first have to prove residency. His opponent pounced quickly; Governor Patrick issued a statement deploring his opponent’s heartlessness: “Baker’s proposal to require homeless shelters to turn away people, including veterans and even families with children, if they can’t produce proof of residency is inhumane and wrong….[A] government that would turn a homeless child out into a cold night or deny a poor person a meal because they could not find a utility bill is not the kind of government that reflects the values of Massachusetts.” Baker quickly retreated, saying that his views had been misrepresented and that in emergency situations, no one would ever be turned away.

Stung by that misstep, Baker was careful not to make it again. His campaign platform this year does not call for proof of residency for shelter services. But the Democrats do not intend to let him forget and they regularly seek to remind voters of his “infamous” statement of 2010 (along with a surcharge for the transgression of flip-flopping on an issue).

With that history in mind, what to make of this? The year after he defeated Baker to win re-election, Governor Patrick proposed that families with children seeking emergency shelter first prove that they are residents of the state. His budget plan advertised that because of this and other “housing reforms,” less money would be needed for shelter programs. The Legislature, eager to rein in the sharp climb in shelter costs that our homelessness crisis is causing, quickly approved this new restriction, which has now been in place for the past two years. Families seeking shelter are now informed that they need to present some form of Massachusetts ID before their applications are even considered.

So the 2014 campaign for governor features a candidate extremely wary (on this one score at least) of being charged with a compassion deficit, and an opposing party delighted to accuse him of once advocating the very policy that their incumbent governor put in place. It all suggests that neither party puts a premium on knowing about the lives of those toward whom they are very keen on showcasing compassion. Voters, very understandably, could get very tired.

Sheltering All Our Homeless Children

The state is greeting Governor Patrick’s proposal to provide shelter for some of the Central American children now crossing the border into the U.S. with both praise and derision.

Some are applauding the Governor for rekindling the Massachusetts tradition of leading by example: like Governor John Winthrop, he is calling on us to recognize that we are as a city upon on a hill with the eyes of the world upon us. Others are scornful of the notion of opening our doors to these speakers of other languages and their rumored crime and drug-resistant diseases.

Gone is the consensus that prevailed in 2008 when President George W. Bush signed into law the Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act, under which the nation resolved not to send children from countries other than Mexico and Canada entering the U.S. alone back to their country of origin before hearing their claims to stay. Now resolutions disapproving of the Governor’s policy are being introduced in the Legislature and a “send them home” rally at the State House is being planned.

One popular rationale for rejecting the Governor’s proposal is the state’s own homelessness problem: “While I appreciate the desire to be sympathetic and helpful,” House minority leader Brad Jones told the Globe, “the state already faces enough of a challenge trying to care for its own homeless children.”

Representative Jones has a point, although it must be said that meeting that challenge has not been a high priority for him or for most other state lawmakers. In fact, the Legislature has been largely content to allow the Governor to continue his policy of denying emergency shelter to families with homeless children unless, as his regulations require, “the children of the household are in a housing situation not meant for human habitation, and where there is a substantial health and safety risk to the family that is likely to result in significant harm should the family remain in such housing situation.” This policy, the Patrick administration believes, serves as an important deterrent to those who would otherwise flood the system.

In the past nine months alone, nearly 2400 families with children — a far greater number than the 1000 children the Governor is proposing to help — obtained shelter in the state only after braving these risks by, for example, sleeping in cars and abandoned buildings. The Globe’s Yvonne Abraham, whose column yesterday described the acutely perilous journey of one nine-year old girl from Central America to the U.S., also wrote nearly two years ago about the dangers facing the state’s homeless families when the Governor’s policy was put into effect. In yesterday’s story, Dayanna from El Salvador was not raped. But in the October, 2102, as Abraham reported, Ginna from Boston, the mother of a 17-month old daughter, was not so fortunate.

Both these stories illustrate the point the Governor made last week: we are “great when we open our doors and our hearts to needy children, and diminished when we don’t.” Is there a good reason to be selective about who the needy children are?