research institute for compassionate economics

Helping people is hard

Written by Diane Coffey on December 5th, 2012

I came across this article in the New York Times a couple of days ago.

In brief, it is a follow up on a previous article that reports on Officer DePrimo, of the New York City police force, who purchased boots for a shoeless, homeless man. A photo of Officer DePrimo giving the boots, taken by a passing tourist, spread on the internet; even Mayor Bloomberg commented on it.

When I read this story, I was moved, both by the officer’s empathy for the homeless man, and by the fact that a couple of weeks after receiving the boots, the homeless man was seen on the street with bare feet.

This man did not wear the boots he was given, even though he would seemingly be made better off by doing so. Were they were stolen? Did he sell them to buy something he needed or wanted? Was he just keeping them in safe place, as he told the New York Times when interviewed for this article? Perhaps insights from sociology or psychology about the strong relationships between street living and mental illness and addiction in the United States help us understand this particular story somewhat better. But it nonetheless seems to be a vivid reminder that helping people is hard.

We know that in India people often do not use the latrines they have been given as toilets, even though it would make them and their children healthier. We suspect that families do not invest in women’s health even though it would improve the life chances of their children. We know from the work of Paul Farmer and others that it is tough to get people to take life-saving AIDS drugs. Around the world, poor people, like rich people, often make bad decisions. Of course, for the poor, the consequences are often worse.

Knowing these things often makes me think twice about the big claims that some non-profits make about the difference they are making on the ground. Helping people is really hard. But it is good to know that lots of people are trying, and that there people like Officer DePrimo who are willing to contribute some of their resources to help.