Interestingly, however, American altruism wanes significantly when the children in need turn eighteen. People willing to reach deep into their pockets are give of their time to help needy kids often seem very critical of adults in need. Yet, that magical eighteenth birthday is no guarantee of any ability to succeed, or to avoid later crisis. Further, if society’s best-intended interventions were insufficient to serve the need of children, then that need will almost certainly persist into adulthood.
Tristan* is an example of one of many needy kids who grew up. Born prematurely, he needed—and received—a great deal of medical care as a child. Like many other prematurely born children, he suffered from cerebral palsy, but physical and occupational therapy, together with other interventions, helped him keep going. Tristan fell two years behind his peers in school, but managed to keep attending and hoped to graduate by the time he was twenty. Otherwise, because he was born into an intact family with a mother able stay home to dedicate her attention to him, he was able to live a fairly normal life. Tristan’s parents, however, divorced when he was sixteen; with his mother was no longer able to help him full-time, he did not finish high school. Now twenty-three, Tristan attends a GED program and is trying to complete his high school diploma. Without it, and without other marketable skills, Tristan has not been able to find work to support himself.
However, when he applied for public assistance, Tristan discovered that he was eligible for very little help unless he was a parent—and he had no children. Without a needy kid of his own to trigger the system’s support, Tristan was eligible only for minimal short-term food stamps. He did not qualify for state health insurance, and was placed at the bottom of a three-year waiting list for public housing.
Not only has he been told that he does not qualify for most public assistance, but Tristan also faces significant prejudice both because of his direct need and because of the effects unmet need has had on his life. People tell him he should get a job—but he is cognitively slow, if not quite legally disabled, and has no diploma and no skills; finding a job in which he can succeed has proven difficult. People shy away from him because he is now in obvious need of dental care, but he has no way to pay a dentist to fix his teeth.
Would it not be better for society to support and celebrate Tristan’s attempt to better himself through education, knowing his goal is to be able to find and maintain employment? Could Americans possibly find the compassion to provide him with dental care, if only because his deteriorating teeth offer one more barrier to his economic self-sufficiency? Or, do Americans like to think themselves virtuous because they are easily moved by campaigns to help needy kids, but lack the real virtue required to help people in need regardless of age?