By Donella Meadows
–December 26, 1996–
On the day before Christmas a local newspaper story told, as many newspaper stories do, of a case of human suffering induced by government stupidity. The sufferers in this case are Sid and Ruth Lowry of Marshfield, Vermont. The stupidity is in Vermont’s fuel assistance program.
It seems the Lowrys have survived decades of hard Vermont winters by cutting firewood from their 228 acres. The three woodstoves in their old farmhouse consume 12 to 14 cords a year. The Lowrys always enjoyed putting up this prodigious amount of wood. “I love working in the woods,” says 68-year-old Ruth Lowry. “I love using the chain saw.”
But three years ago Sid Lowry, then 85, developed Alzheimer’s disease. Ruth found herself incapable of putting up 12 cords of wood alone. She took to hiring neighbors to help and paying them with $390 a year she got in fuel assistance from the state.
That worked fine until last spring when the Vermont legislature, its federal fuel assistance funding suddenly cut nearly in half, required that payments go not to families needing fuel, but directly to certified suppliers. That was to prevent folks from spending their fuel money on beer or cigarettes.
That requirement made some sense, but it also made problems for Ruth Lowry. Seven people help her in the woods. The state will send a check to only one, and that one has done only $150 worth of work for the Lowrys. The rules won’t let him give the rest of the money back or pay the others.
Do you ever wonder why the papers like to exasperate us with stories like this? Are they trying to tell us that people are too various and quirky to be governable? Or that government is incurably ham-handed? Maybe they want to embarrass some state official enough to get help for this couple. Or make us feel bad about all the welfare cuts we’ve voted for.
Whatever the intent, my reaction is to get so upset that I spend the rest of the day mulling about how to fix the system.
Surely in the forested state of Vermont it would be possible to write that fuel law so it would pay for wood cut informally by neighbors. Or allow multiple suppliers. Or pay out the funds through some local agent who knows which folks really need fuel and which would spend the money on booze. Any of those common-sense changes would solve the Lowry’s immediate problem.
But then I saw a larger problem. Why does that farmhouse need 12 cords of wood? It must be like the one I moved into 24 years ago, no insulation, full of holes. If the legislature could put, say, one-fourth of the fuel budget each year into tightening houses, we could reduce fuel support costs and the load on the environment at the same time.
Then I realized that the picture is even bigger. The Lowrys clearly need help with more than fuel and insulation. Suppose they were my parents. And I weren’t around to help them. I’d want them to be treated not as subjects of bureaucracy or objects of condescension, but as human beings with unique problems, worth caring about.
I envisioned speaking to Ruth Lowry, very gently, asking if it might be time to sell that acreage and use the money to move to a facility where she could be warm without chopping wood and Sid could have professional care.
Then I pictured how a self-reliant Vermont woman who loves her woods would probably react to that idea.
I thought of offering a young couple a chance to settle on the property in exchange for helping Mrs. Lowry manage it. Or some kind of sale or mortgage that would guarantee life tenancy, so she could cash in a bit of the land’s value without losing it altogether. Maybe the Lowrys just need help confronting a bank.
By then I was thinking about the 10,000 Vermont families on fuel assistance this year (cut from 18,000 last year). I can imagine dealing with the Lowrys with compassion and creativity. How to do that with 10,000 people, all in different circumstances, with different kinds of needs and prides?
What I ended up envisioning was a dispersed army of caring local folks to administer all the welfare programs (so they could, out of their common sense, switch funds from fuel assistance to rent subsidy or house rehabilitation as the situation warrants.) These administrators would know about energy options and banks and the sensitivities of folks who have fallen upon hard times. They would get a simple mandate — no one shall go cold in winter, no one shall be malnourished, those who need health care or education shall get it. Be creative about accomplishing these goals, and you get a bonus if you can do it with less public money and less environmental damage.
Nah, forget it, said the cynical side of me. We probably couldn’t find people like that, much less the money to pay them.
But, said the other side of me, there are plenty of people who want to help other people. In the long run a program based on humanity and creativity would save money. On the neighborly scale of Vermont, just over half a million people, one can imagine it working. With a little less bureaucratic rigidity and a little more funding, it’s close to working now.
And what about the rest of the country, 260 million people? Well, that’s nothing more than 520 groups of half a million each.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996