Let me take that one, professor.

Commenter Mike Kaplan asks Harold Pollack a question:

Why am I paying taxes to take care of your brother-in-law Vincent? He is your family – why don’t you take care of him? Why do you want to force me to sacrifice my time and labor – in taxes – to do what you are not doing?

Not a very nice question – even setting aside the obviously false premise that Vincent isn’t being cared for by his family – but it does have a fairly easy answer.

Professor Pollack is not and should not be obligated to support a disabled relative, because that relative is neither his minor child nor his chattel.  Vincent is a human being.  The government has determined that Vincent lacks the ability to support himself, and therefore Vincent, not his family, is entitled by law to a subsistence income from the Social Security Administration.

Before Social Security, people like Vincent were considered unpleasant accidents best kept out of the public eye and certainly undeserving of personhood status.  The family of an intellectually limited person was presumptively the only means of support, and consequently entitled to make use of him or her in any way they chose.  Developmentally delayed children grew up to be exploited as slave labor and for the sexual gratification of those who supported them.

Every disabled person should be afforded the ability to live as independently as possible and to have choices so he or she is not forced out of personhood.  In Vincent’s case, this means an income from SSI, which is an entitlement, not a gift, as it would be if it came from a family member.  I can hear the libertarians lining up to scoff at the notion that a monthly SSI check can be considered “independence,” but it is the best we can do.  For people with physical disabilities, independent living requires the expenditure of public and private funds to build entrances that allow them access to buildings and transportation services.

And of course not every developmentally disabled adult has a high-income relative. In the richest country in the history of the world, whether such people can lead minimally decent lives should be guaranteed by policy, not left to accident.

This discussion reminds me of a passage from Tom Jones, following an act of generosity by Squire Allworthy:

Allworthy here betook himself to those pleasing slumbers which a heart that hungers after goodness is apt to enjoy when thoroughly satisfied. As these are possibly sweeter than what are occasioned by any other hearty meal, I should take more pains to display them to the reader, if I knew any air to recommend him to for the procuring such an appetite.

Nations, like individuals, can learn to “hunger after goodness.” Or not.