on one detroit man who walked to work

James Robertson is a lucky man. He caught the attention of a Detroit reporter, who told his story of long commute, low wages, high cost of vehicle ownership and poor public transportation. His story then caught the attention of a 19-year-old college student with a penchant for social media (and a couple of others who haven’t been quite as featured in follow-up stories). The story went viral in a feel-good fund-raising kind of way, and as of today James Robertson’s cause has raised more than $250,000 from kind people across the country.
But you can tell I’m about to not like this story.

You’re right, and for a lot of reasons.

First, the story seems to suggest that Mr. Robertson’s challenge is unusual. It is not. Millions of people across the country work for low wages, cannot afford cars/maintenance/insurance and live where public transportation is the first thing to get cut when some fiscal conservative decides to tackle public debt, or some political candidate wants to run on a platform of “fiscal responsibility.” Mr. Robertson is certainly to be admired for his persistence in caring about attendance and getting to his job every day, but he isn’t the only one. In Flint, 20 percent of households don’t have a car; and public buses that don’t run nights or holidays just aren’t really that helpful. (Additionally, the cost of insuring a car in this city is doubled if you rent instead of own your home.) Americans put insurmountable barriers in front of those we charitably call “the working poor,” and then condescendingly express our collective glee when they overcome them.

Second, we love being “good Samaritans,” but generally find it distasteful to be good citizens. In America, according to the White House website, Americans contribute about $178 per taxpayer per year (based on a $50,000 income) to all the forms of social support we call “welfare.” Though the amount is comparatively small (“national defense” spending is $440), we continue to complain about those who need this assistance and we tend to vote for those who promise to get tough on “those people.” The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, (SNAP), also called “food stamps,” in particular takes a regular public beating, though, even combined with school nutrition and WIC, it consumes just $69 of that $178 welfare allowance. About 19 cents a day. If we were good neighbors, we would rebel against the stigma and insist that we double or triple that amount, so kids can be fed and workers can be healthy and families can have what they need. Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society, said someone famous. Why are we so opposed to that?

Third, the 19-year-old student who set up the funding told the newspaper that he thought a board should be set up to help Mr. Robertson manage the money – at the time barely $50K. Because a 19-year-old college student knows better than a grown man? Because Robertson is poor and can’t be trusted to manage a more than one paycheck at a time? Because the student is white and Robertson is black?

There’s more. The student has become the hero, subject of lots of comments about what a credit he is and how well his parents did in raising him. Car dealers and others have called with offers of cars or services, perhaps hoping to share the “hero” limelight. (Note to dealers: someone right outside your dealership has a similar need and could use one of those cars, but you may not get your name in the news for helping.) Reporters and commenters have called Robertson “deserving,” as if he somehow stands above the millions of other low-wage workers who show up every day, despite whatever else in their lives is held together by prayer and duct tape. Robertson’s boss has praised him, calling him the standard by which he judges the attendance of the rest of the crew. (Praise would sound more sincere if it came with an offer of a ride, FYI.) Robertson commented that he loves his job, that his co-workers are his family. Who treats family that way?

Finally, a reporter commented that Robertson seems to like his routine. Really? Being away from home 20 hours a day, sleeping two hours a night, and trying to catch up on the weekends? Really?

This is why I rail about systemic change. James Robertson put a face on a problem, but we prefer to respond to the face rather than the problem. Weekend backpacks of food for kids; 4 free gallons of water each to resident with proof of residency; Wells Fargo claiming righteousness-by-association because someone with a Wells Fargo debit card bought groceries for a shelter; “angel tree” Christmas packages for families; anything we can do with the minister’s discretionary fund, a desire to meet — and be photographed with — the people we help. It all pales in comparison to the biblical mandate that we create a world that works for all the people, that, in addition to loving kindness, we do justice and walk humbly with God.

At $10.55 an hour in a one-person household, Mr. Robertson actually lives at nearly twice the federal poverty line. He is officially not poor. And he is not alone. Fully 35 percent of Americans live below “twice poverty.”

So, while I’m glad Mr. Robertson is getting relief from his distress, I’d like to know that 112 million other Americans will be likewise relieved.