Here's Something: To 'shovel,' or not to 'shovel,' is our dilemma

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Have you ever heard of the game “Bang, What Happened?” My brother and I would play it on long car trips back in the day. He would think of something that made a loud noise and I had to figure out what happened by asking a series of questions.

I thought of that fun pastime when trees were snapping in my yard during the Dec. 29 snowstorm. Something would go bang outside, and I would wonder what happened. Over and over.

But it wasn’t much fun.

Meteorologists said the Portland area would get little snow that night so I never contemplated a potential power outage. Unfortunately, they were wrong and about 120,000 customers lost power. I lost mine for two cold and boring days.

But it wasn’t all bad. Besides realizing I need to do a better job at not getting so stressed out and impatient waiting for Central Maine Power to come turn my life – I mean, power – back on, the storm caused me to reflect on a nagging ethical issue I’ve been pondering for years.

The dilemma concerned an elderly neighbor who couldn’t shovel or snow-blow and wouldn’t pay for someone to do it, even though he could afford it. Instead, he’d rely on volunteers, either someone from his church or a neighbor to come plow him out.

When I first moved to the neighborhood and noticed that his driveway was still covered a day after a storm, I’d go over and work my shoveling magic. I felt good, knowing I was helping my neighbor. However, after a few storms, I realized he simply and greedily didn’t want to pay for snow removal and that he planned all along for someone like me to help, pro bono.

It dawned on me that I was just the latest in a long line of manipulated snow-shoveling suckers. So, I stopped volunteering.

I took care of my own driveway and went about my day. Despite my feeling used and still holding firm in my decision not to help, I was nevertheless wracked with guilt while his driveway went unplowed, not knowing if anyone would come or whether an emergency would arise.

After a lot of thought, I’ve concluded that it was OK to stop enabling my neighbor. Since big storms are common in Maine, people know they need to prepare. Sure, a newcomer might need some help after the first storm or two, but relying on good Samaritans storm after storm is manipulative, especially since plow service can be arranged easily.

While I’ve long grappled with the ethics surrounding my decision not to help, it struck me during this latest snowstorm how that experience relates to our welfare system.

Conservatives feel there are many who, like my former neighbor, game the system and take advantage of the kindness of taxpayers. In fact, this is a common theme of Gov. Paul LePage, who has tried to make Mainers realize that freeloaders are burdening the social safety net.

Gaming the system is not uncommon. My sister, a middle-school teacher, recently told me of a failing student who told her there’s no reason to study because the state will always take care of him. As proof, the boy looks to his mother, who receives a cell phone, health insurance, food and housing from the government.

This is disturbing on so many levels. Not only do I pity my sister, who must try to teach such warped and unmotivated children, I feel worse for her student, who sees the example of his mother and thinks freeloading – instead of the pride of working hard and providing for his own needs – will make him happy.

Conservatives want to help anyone who unexpectedly finds himself in a jam. If we lived in Florida and were hit with a freak snowstorm, helping an unprepared neighbor would be the right thing to do. Same with welfare policy. Needy people ought to be spared deprivation by a government safety net.

But able-bodied individuals willing to manipulate the system should not enjoy benefits, because they’ve had a chance to prepare. In the case of my sister’s student, the taxpayer is sacrificing his wealth to provide that boy an education so he can eventually get a job to meet his own needs.

I realized during this past storm that my struggle with this former neighbor is a microcosm of how our society has struggled to determine the right level of welfare assistance. While many need help, in the case of my freeloading former neighbor and my sister’s lazy student, helping them actually hurts them by perpetuating their dependence on others.

Determining proper welfare levels will play a role in the upcoming budget process, according to LePage’s recently released budget proposal. I just hope lawmakers make sure no Mainer is allowed to remain dependent when independence is within their reach.

John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.