Orlando Sentinel

The great blurring of need and want

By Kathleen Parker
Published in The Orlando Sentinel on September 22, 1999.

Do you need it, or do you want it?

So my father always replied to my childish request for some material thing. Usually, I had to admit, I just wanted it. Sometimes he would buy whatever it was -- a reward for honesty, perhaps. Most times he would decline and let the lesson sink in.

I was reminded of the question recently as I read a letter to the editor of an Illinois newspaper from "Bill," husband of "Sue" -- fictitious names to protect the ignorant. Bill was complaining about state welfare laws that weren't measuring up to his and Sue's expectations. A bit of history:

Sue, a 21-year-old college student, and Bill have a young child. Because Bill works during the day -- and Sue is "desperately trying to stay in school" -- they need full-time day care. But (welling tears here) they can't afford it.

Enter the state (wild applause).

The state of Illinois, according to Bill, offers subsidized child care with a minimum co-pay to "needy" families. Bill and Sue, alas, don't qualify because Sue works two jobs "to barely make ends meet," and thus earns too much to qualify.

This, despite the fact that Sue "has made the sacrifice of only seeing our daughter and myself a couple of hours an evening in between work to finish the one year of school she has left," writes Bill.

Anyone can understand Bill and Sue's frustration. The state is supposed to take care of these things. Bill and Sue are hard-working Americans. They have ambition. They have goals. And then suddenly this baby comes along and everybody expects Bill and Sue to take care of her.

Life is tough when you're a brat.

Not to be too hard on Bill and Sue. They are, after all, products of these times. They've been sold a bill of goods: You-can-have-it-all; it's-not-your-fault; come to Papa, come to Papa, do. The state will take care of everything.

No one suggested to Bill and Sue that having it all was a big fat lie. No one told them that having a baby means real sacrifice, though preferably not the baby herself. It apparently hasn't occurred to Bill and Sue that they might pursue several options that would ensure their child's emotional security -- assuming this is at least a subliminal priority -- without permanently derailing Sue's education.

A few thoughts: Sue could attend night classes, staying home during the day to nurture her firstborn. She could postpone her college education until Baby is in school. Bill could work two jobs. If they really need two incomes to put cereal in the bowl, Bill and Sue could work opposite shifts so that Baby has at least one parent at home.

The problem with Bill and Sue and too many other nouvelle parents is that they, themselves, are children -- emotionally and intellectually if not chronologically. They want what they want; what Baby needs is tangential.

The erstwhile American dream -- to have shelter, food and opportunity -- has been distorted by greed and the insatiable lust for instant gratification. Sacrifice, meanwhile, has been redefined. It's no longer about needs, only wants.

Bill ends his letter with this tantrumesque query, suggesting that keyboards of the future should come equipped with a foot-stomping icon : "Why (oh, why?) does the state need to make it next to impossible to receive this aid?" he writes.

Because, Bill, the state is funded by taxpayers who row their own boats. Toss the hankie and grab a paddle.

[Posted 09/21/1999 5:07 PM EST]

Copyright 1999 Orlando Sentinel Online.