Law in Contemporary Society

Changing the Dialogue on Social Welfare

-- By JulianAzran - 21 June 2013

My grandfather is undoubtedly my single most important role model, but there is one topic we cannot discuss - social welfare. I have always been dismayed by his harsh views on how people should "help themselves." He always implied that they should do as he did. However, as I've gotten older and learned more about his life, I've come to respect how his experiences have made him feel this way.

Changed Views and Early Impressions

When it comes to politics, my grandfather, once an active member of the liberal grassroots organization Common Cause, is a hard-nosed conservative. He maintains "liberal" views on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion but on entitlements: “I came from nothing, and nobody helped me." To a great extent, he is right, and in the face of his uplifting true story of what hard work can accomplish, it is hard to rationalize "helping those who can't help themselves." I believe his family’s experiences in Nazi Europe and Brooklyn played the largest role in forming his worldviews.

Before the German invasion, my great-grandfather, Jacob, was a successful tailor in Poland. He was a friend of the Polish government and designed uniforms for military officers. Even after the German invasion, Jacob was able to use his political connections to buy some time for his family, but his entire life’s work and extended family were eventually taken from him. Leon does not like to discuss this part of his life; most of our family did not survive. Over the years I have only been able to glean bits of information about what happened to him and his family while they were still in Europe. The sum of those fragments presents a family torn apart by war, and a boy whose world views were formed by those events and their aftermath.

In Brooklyn

During our discussion on entitlements and social safety nets, Leon recounted sleeping on a couch in a one-bedroom apartment with his parents. While he struggled to learn English at his Brooklyn high school, Leon had the good fortune to learn from a fiercely dedicated uni-lingual teacher. His father, Jacob, refused to be extorted by the local unions and had trouble finding work before eventually resorting to doing stitch work at a dry-cleaner’s. Leon worked hard in school and enrolled at the Pratt Institute. Years later, he was the chairman of a multi-million dollar company, making ties and socks for Pierre Cardin and Calvin Klein.

How is it that my grandfather, a man who struggled for most of his life, does not see a place for helping others through government welfare? In order to better understand how social context affected his views, I had to look inward at my own experiences.

Inter-Generational Comparisons

As I’ve gotten older and learned more about my grandfather’s formative years, I have been able to acknowledge the advantages that he had. This has caused me to re-examine my own life through that lens and realize that the some of the advantages that I’ve enjoyed were the result of his hard work. Leon would not deny that although his family survived tragedy and struggled to adapt in a new world, he had the skills and support system to succeed. He was intelligent and hardworking, with supportive parents and a patient teacher willing to help him learn English after school. He entered the tie business with some knowledge of industry from his father and at a time when men still wore suits outside of the office. He would certainly not deny that all of these things contributed to his success. I on the other hand denied that truth as it pertained to my own life for some time. In discussing welfare with my grandfather, I had always argued that he needed to consider the advantages that he had in order to understand why others might need welfare. In doing so, I realized that I had never examined my own life in that way.

Although my parents and teachers told me I was smart, I chose not to apply myself until the 10th grade when I realized I wanted to be a musician. For many others, such tardiness would be fatal to one’s future, but being from an upper-middle class enclave in Long Island gave me a second chance at success. My parents patiently spent much of my secondary education encouraging me to do better and saying that I would regret slacking through high school for the rest of my life. After I began to see dividends from my new work ethic, I gave myself all of the credit.

Thinking of my grandfather made me realize how foolish that view was, and how imperative my privileged environment was to my newfound success. But this misconception also helped me better understand my grandfather. Watching his father lose both his family and career was not only heartbreaking but humiliating. This shame was made worse when he could not practice his craft in his country and had to resort to hemming pants and sewing buttons after a career of designing uniforms for high-ranking military officers. But Jacob’s resolve in not capitulating to the union’s demands impressed upon Leon that one cannot rely on help from other people. Jacob had also relied on his political friends in helping his family avoid the worst consequences of the war, only to be betrayed. Leon’s success had to come from within. “I came from nothing, and nobody helped me."

For me, the opportunity was always there I was just ignorant to it. Only recently have I realized that I must similarly scrutinize my own views and advantageous circumstances. Many of the benefits I’ve enjoyed have been the result of his hard work. They have given me the luxury of being able to talk about all the ways we should help other people without realizing the sacrifices that must be made. My grandfather made those sacrifices, which is why I love him so much.

You are entitled to restrict access to your paper if you want to. But we all derive immense benefit from reading one another's work, and I hope you won't feel the need unless the subject matter is personal and its disclosure would be harmful or undesirable. To restrict access to your paper simply delete the "#" character on the next two lines:

Note: TWiki has strict formatting rules for preference declarations. Make sure you preserve the three spaces, asterisk, and extra space at the beginning of these lines. If you wish to give access to any other users simply add them to the comma separated ALLOWTOPICVIEW list.


Webs Webs

r4 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:23:38 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM