Bemeficent Society: Chpt 7

TOM’S STORY

 Though born in one of Newcapia’s low-income families, Tom nevertheless achieves a wholesome upbringing in which Newcapia’s supportive social policies play a major role.

 TOM’S NEIGHBORHOOD

 Before Tom steps out of the house to be properly introduced, a few words are necessary to describe his surroundings without which the reader’s image of the boy, himself, would be incomplete.  This is, after all, Newcapia.

Tom, if asked the location of his family’s apartment, would first name his neighborhood, “Hamilton Park,” for the simple reason his life was intimately associated with it.  Identifying his city, of three-million inhabitants would be an afterthought.  He had very little to do with it.

The Hamilton Park Neighborhood occupied about 1600 acres and accommodated some 2500 families.  A creek line along one edge determined its irregular shape but, for visualization purposes, the reader might picture it a one-and-a-half mile sided square.   Unlike our typical image of a vaguely-defined neighborhood, Hamilton Park’s  boundaries  were clearly delineated on the ground by combinations of tree lines, hedgerows, decorative fences, and/or low walls—each breaking point along its circumference marked by prominent concrete posts.  Its name was boldly engraved in stone piers at its two public vehicular entrances.  (Its other two entrances were reserved for municipal and emergency use.)  There was no through traffic.  A driver who entered the neighborhood inadvertently would find himself confined to a circumferential street that brought him back to an exit not far from his entry point.

The extent, if any, of a transit system within the neighborhood confines was left up to the neighborhood council.  Some communities opted for an electric van that circulated continuously around the ring road while some areas dispensed with public transportation altogether.  In any case, the financing for such services was unsubsidized by outside entities.

Within neighborhood confines, a covenant generally restricted the area to residential use and, typically, its four elementary schools and one high school.  An allowance was left near its center for a local shopping center, a recreational area, and a neighborhood administration center containing an assembly room, gym, and office spaces.  The duties of the full-time, paid superintendent and assistant included the management of resident fees, street repairs, landscape maintenance, refuse pickup, upkeep of playground equipment, garbage collection, and, in some neighborhoods, child care. Needless to add, the superintendent relied on volunteer help particularly among retired residents.

In alliance with local businesses and local colleges, the administration center provided rental space for work fairs, promotional events, gathering place for field trips, recruitment, and training and career counseling. And the center served as well as home for a number of social events such as dances, receptions, and club events.

Most of the buildings in Hamilton Park were decades-old, three and four-storey walkups.  The low-rental apartments themselves offered smallish room sizes, inadequate closets, and outdated, but at least workable, mechanical contrivances.  The apartments did, however, have one attractive feature; a remodeling project had turned them inside-out—that is to say, the living-dining spaces were pushed from front-to-back and opened to the rear with picture windows and porches.  Since all parking, streets, and drives were confined to the building frontages, nothing prevented the buildings’ unfenced back yards from being joined into linear parks held in common by the neighborhood administration.  The parks themselves were connected, when necessary, by footbridges arching over intersecting streets.  Young Tom, whom we will meet shortly, could, therefore, descend a set of back stairs and enjoy access to all corners of the neighborhood on safe, pleasant, landscaped walking and bike paths.

If this description of Hamilton Park bears little resemblance to the reader’s image of a low-income neighborhood, it is because Newcapia’s officials recognized that orderly areas demanded far fewer city services and policing than, let’s say, the resource-guzzling American inner city.  Humanitarian issues aside, Newcaps concluded they simply could not afford the financial burden that slums imposed.  Hence, from strictly monetary concerns, the above description was representative of typical lower and middle-income Newcapian neighborhoods.  Which is not to say that all residential areas were identical.  Panning out from Hamilton Park to view the city as whole one would find a variety of wealthier, lower-density neighborhoods—some sporting more lavish layouts, wider open spaces, high-rise apartments, luxury hotels, even bridle paths.  Without exception, however, all neighborhoods adherered to the basic requirements of limited access, established borders, and specific identities.

 

TOM’S EARLY DAYS

  FOOD COUPONS:

Tom’s parents are a good, caring couple but poor earners.  The father is a day laborer and the mother a domestic.  In a less egalitarian society, their difficulty in making ends meet might well have found its way to the dinner table and resulted in malnutrition for the family.  But thanks to a government food coupon program, their table is spread, not lavishly, but adequately enough to provide nourishing meals.  The program works like this:

Each month, the government deposits in every citizen’s bank account—man, woman, and child—an allowance of coupons designed to help meet his/her nutritional needs.  The number of coupons is adjusted for the age and sex of the recipient but is otherwise universally allocated—i.e., no qualifiers such as means testing are applied.  The coupons are, of course, always in the form of electronic entries and remain valid for one year.

The coupons cannot, by themselves, be exchanged for food but are a necessary component in all retail purchases of food items.  Specifically, all food purchases require, in addition to their normal dollar payment, an equal number of food coupons.  This requirement applies to all grocery and market shopping, specialty food purchases, package deliveries, farmers’ market purchases, and restaurant meals.  Even “free” food, such as that offered at banquets, promotional events, and charitable handouts, must similarly be paid for in coupons and dollars by the sponsor of the event.

The number of coupons distributed is calculated by the authorities so that, on the average, middle class families are allotted enough to cover their consumption of a standardized basket of wholesome foodstuffs.  In short, the coupon system has little or no financial impact on their standard of living.

Wealthy families, on the other hand, starting with the same number of coupons per person, are likely to deplete their allowance well before the end of the month by virtue of their more frequent restaurant dining, their more expensive taste in foodstuffs, and their fondness for wine.  To meet their coupon shortfall, they are obliged to purchase them on the Peoples’ Bank’s open market in which dollars and coupons are freely exchanged.  Thus it would not be unusual for the accumulated demand for coupons by the well-to-do to double their food costs.

The impact of the coupon program on poor families is the reverse of that upon wealthy—that is to say, poor families have it within their power to accumulate surplus coupons by a variety of self-help measures such as more frugal food purchases, greater sobriety, home gardening, raising chickens, canning, and abstaining from outside dining.  With the money the poor gain from the sale of their extra coupons in the open market, they can defray part—or, in particularly needy cases, all—of their food costs.

As a sidelight, it should be noted that the government uses the dollar-coupon exchange rate on the open market to continually recalculate the number of coupons it disperses.  Should the rate drift below par—i.e., below one dollar per coupon—that would be considered a signal to reduce the number of coupons distributed.  Conversely, coupons selling above par would signal a more liberalized distribution.

One might think that the imposition of coupons would create an inconvenience on the part of food buyer and seller alike, but this is not the case.  When a shopper brings her cart to the register, bar codes on the purchases tally foodstuffs separately.  Say they total $30.00.  That sum is sent to the bank that then debits both the shopper’s cash account and her coupon account for the amount.  If the shopper has already exhausted her monthly allowance of food coupons, the bank automatically buys, in its customer’s name and at her expense, thirty coupons in the open market.  This transaction, like the original one, is instantaneous and invisible to both the shopper and the checkout clerk.  Only the buyer’s receipt betrays the complete details of the transaction.

The food-coupon system provides a number of less apparent advantages besides its primary purpose of supplementing the dietary needs of the poor.

  • It eliminates the present proliferation of overlapping governmental handouts such as food stamps, school luncheons, etc.  The need of private charitable endeavors such as food pantries is likewise reduced.
  • Instead of encouraging dependency, the system promotes self-sufficiency activities such as gardening and home canning.
  • Although the system is unquestionably a form of income redistribution, it is essentially a voluntary one—that is to say, it does not force the wealthy to cater to their expensive taste in food and liquor nor does it force the poor to take any action other than staying withing their food budget.
  • It’s rules apply to the rich and poor alike.  No means testing is required.
  • Aside from its low administration expenses, it costs the government nothing.

 

GANG ACTIVITIES:

Thanks to the care afforded him by his doting parents, the nutritional assist provided by the food-coupon system, and the proximity of neighborhood parks and playgrounds, we may presume Tom emerges from childhood a hale and hearty, well-adjusted youngster.

Tom’s favorable development continues as he takes his first tentative steps beyond his apartment and into the neighborhood’s activities.  Certainly, he would have worked alongside his mother attending to the family’s patch in the communal garden.  Then, as his mother’s apron strings loosened, he would have gravitated into the salutary orbit of the Hamilton Park Gang that was open to kids of all ages.  Unlike the reputation of present-day urban gangs, that of Newcapia’s gangs was universally welcomed as their  neighborhoods’ guardians.  Under the supervision of their voluntary leaders, gangs patrolled their neighborhood’s streets, picked up trash, tended flower beds, alerted authorities to medical emergencies, reported building code violations such as broken windows, mowed overgrown lots, performed chores for the needy, spotted derelict cars, and, last but not least, kept their eyes open for drug dealing.

The compensation paid to gang members was modest, but, for most kids in low income areas, it was their only source of income and was appreciated as such.  These salaries, moreover, were reinforced by grateful neighborhood associations in the form of sponsored sports events, barbeque picnics and excursions to city highlights.  Although the children were scarcely aware, the greatest benefit they received from their gang affiliation was intangible: character building.  The routine performance of their duties inculcated the ethos that life was not a free ride, that honest work was an indispensable part of its quid quo pro, and that pleasure can be derived by working cooperatively with others on constructive tasks.

Nor were his gang activities the only way Newcapia’s policies leant Tom a helping hand.  As he grew older, he could participated in a wide variety of inter-neighborhood activities such as soccer matches, debating teams, chess tournaments, and square dancing.

 

TOM’S ADOLESCENCE

 THE YOUTH STIPEND:

What has been discussed thus far are those social programs that the subcommittee felt would be useful in guiding Newcapia’s youth’s day-to-day activities.  Rather than stopping there, however, the group was so intent on promoting the healthy development of children that they took an additional step to ensure it.  They took out what was, in effect, an insurance policy to back up their objective: the Youth Stipend.  Newcapia would bribe children to be good.

Although the considerable cost of the program at first seemed to weigh against it, some back-of-the-envelope calculations convinced the subcommittee that it was not only affordabe, it was a genuine money saver.  Common sense—not to mention basic animal husbandry—dictated that by investing in the good behavior of its young population, the government would incur savings many times the program’s outlay in all segments of society since good moral standards, once imbued, were likely to persist throughout life.  Cost reductions could be expected in crime prevention, incarceration, rehabilitation, drug intervention, youth counseling, legal expenses, property damage, graffiti cleanup, medical emergencies, and so on.  Not to mention the incalculable benefits a civil society  bestowed on all its members.

Mechanically, the subcommittee devised the youth stipend system to work like this:  On their thirteenth birthdays, all youths, regardless of family circumstances, receive an annual stipend that continues through their twenty-second birthday—ten payments in all.  The stipends are deposited in the youths’ bank accounts whose balances can be viewed by them at any time but cannot be withdrawn until they are twenty-three or older.

The only corresponding obligation on the part of the young people is that they consistently demonstrate good behavior—more particularly, that they not violate  an extensive list of prohibited activities that include shop lifting or other petty crimes, physical assault, looting, gun carry, public drunkenness, drug use, school truancy and drop out, painting graffiti, vandalism, or pregnancy outside marriage.  Youths guilty of any one of these infractions are penalized one annual payment for their first offense; an additional two payments for their second; three more payments for their third; and four payments for their fourth—the last effectively wiping out an offender’s entire account.

The amount of the stipend remains fixed throughout a youth’s enrollment under the plan, but can be changed year-by-year for each new class of initiates.  To give the reader some sense of the anticipation felt by twenty-two year olds, imagine their having received payments of $1,500 a year totaling $15,000, plus possibly another few thousand in interest.

Various businesses and foundations have latched on to the Youth Stipend by offering bonuses for various forms of exceptional achievement in sports, scholastic endeavors, innovation, and community service.  By competing vigorously for these prizes, ambitious children expand their social value by a factor several times over their nominal cost.

On the other side of the coin, there is ,of course, the difficulty in shepherding kids past the age in which newfound independence, rebellion, poor judgment, and plain stupidity combine to encourage some headstrong kids to jump off the deep end, youth stipend or no.  To head off such delinquency, parents, teachers and other mentors do their best to widen the youngsters’ horizon by implanting visions in which their nest eggs, if kept intact, might be spent: world travel, a used car, advanced education, seed money for a new business, or a start on a lifetime saving’s plan.  Needless to add, not every youngster succumbs to such blandishments and some casualties are inevitable.  Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that the large majority of Newcap kids—in which group Tom, I am happy to report, belongs—grow up with a firm understanding that society rewards those who play by the rules.

 

TEENAGE YEARS:

Tom, for all his good nature and common sense, turns out to be an indifferent student in academic subjects.  He is, however, adept in the mechanical arts and so chooses a course focused on vocational training.  This book, will, therefore, defer a discussion of Newcapia’s advanced educational system to the following segment in which Shirley will guide us through her top level schooling.

Once a year, local companies conduct mini job fairs in Hamilton Park’s administration building.  When, in his junior year, Tom applies for an apprenticeship offered at one of these fairs, his good grades in machine tools and robotics land him the position.  We can, therefore, break off this account of Tom’s history confident that he is off to a good start in life helped by a loving family, propitious surroundings, a promising job, an awaiting cash starter, and, let us hope, by a new girl friend who professes to keep him on the straight and narrow.

 

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