No One Should Have to Rely on Good Samaritans

The internet loves heartwarming tales about Good Samaritans helping people in need. But they're also horrifying warning signs of a society unwilling to provide social support for the vulnerable. Meeting people's basic needs shouldn't depend on individuals' altruism.

A young girl receives a backpack during a backpack giveaway for needy children at St Anthony Foundation August 27, 2009 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty

We all love the inspiring story about that person who went way out of her way to help her fellow humans. The internet especially loves such stories — almost as much as it loves touching tales of unlikely friendship between mismatched animals, like cats and hedgehogs.

As socialists, they leave us with mixed feelings. We’re fighting for a more collective and caring society, one in which we all feel a sense of responsibility to one another — just like these good people. But as heartwarming as they are, such stories often symbolize the inner rot of our current economic system under austerity.

Heroics are inspiring — but the system shouldn’t demand such extraordinary measures from us.


Last month, a sweet third-grader, disturbed by a news report about kids who couldn’t eat school lunch because of unpaid debt, donated his allowance — which he had been saving up for six months — to pay off the lunch debt for his whole class. Good for him — but, hey internet, this was not a cute story! Rather, it horrifyingly makes the case for universal school lunch — which New York City does have and Bernie Sanders supports, as does fellow Democratic primary candidate Julian Castro.


On Monday, a Brooklyn woman single-handedly unclogged several sewer grates on the Long Island Expressway, using a traffic cone, trudging through the flooded roadway in her Crocs, with the water up to her knees at points. Because of the flooding, traffic was backed up for miles, and was at a standstill for nearly an hour. As Gothamist reported, when the fifty-year-old photographer, Daphne Youree, claimed credit on Twitter for solving the problem, City Councilman Corey Johnson rightly called her a “Great New Yorker.” But why should one of New York City’s major arteries drain so poorly? Along with our broken subway signals and chunks falling out of the Manhattan Bridge, let’s add this to the long list of things that need fixing around here. And yuck, let’s hope no one has to do this again.


Remember when, as mayor of Newark, Cory Booker made headlines for saving a lady from a burning building? Very brave, but firefighting isn’t for amateurs, and most such rescues, by untrained people without protective equipment, end badly. While rescuing people from burning buildings shouldn’t be a mayor’s responsibility, running a functioning fire department should be. Instead of being hailed as a hero, he should have been asked why there were no firefighters on the scene yet. Booker was also known, as mayor, for shoveling snow himself — not as dangerous but also a bad sign of how well city services were working. What’s next? As president, would this smiling face of DIY neoliberalism show up and personally perform brain surgery on the uninsured rather than pass Medicare for All?


Speaking of Medicare for All, anyone who opposes it needs to spend five minutes looking at GoFundMe, where far too many people are trying to save their dying children by raising money from well-wishers. Relatively few people manage to raise significant funds through such appeals, but there are many touching news stories about those who do. In 2013, for example, one community in Muskegon, Michigan came together for a bowling fundraiser for a local mom with cancer, raising $27,000, after her talented coworker made a website, a Facebook page, and catchy fliers. But most people don’t have the skills or the contacts to pull off a good social media campaign, and that shouldn’t be a death penalty offense.


In April, a seventy-four-year-old man in Ladysmith, South Africa spent his Thursday afternoon patching up a pothole. A leaking pipe was eroding the dirt under the road and every time the municipality fixed the pipe, they left the hole unaddressed. The man used his own tools, sand, and concrete to fix it.


In 2009, a mother tragically lost her twenty-seven-year-old son in a helicopter crash off the Aberdeenshire coast, in Scotland. After she discovered that the search and rescue teams that had tried to save him were all volunteers, she made it her mission to raise money to support them with new lifeboats and more funding for the rescue stations to “potentially save someone else’s life.” She raised 32,000 pounds at one gala event last March. We certainly hope her efforts will save more lives, but these seem like tasks requiring the professionalism and scale of a Coast Guard, not private charity.


There are so many stories about teachers doing things they never should have had to do — from stopping school shooters to feeding kids who come to class hungry — it was hard to pick just one. Teaching is hard enough without having to solve all the world’s problems at the same time. But there’s a special place in Brightsiding Hell for stories about generous teachers buying their own school supplies — and the generous members of the public who step in to help. Last year, one teacher got fed up and made a viral video of herself at Walmart buying $1,000 worth of classroom necessities, as she did every year, out of her own salary, which was just over $35,000. The story has a happy ending: Ben Adam, who works in real estate, saw her video and decided to atone for his sins (sorry, we mean give back) by buying her school supplies, which he now does every year. Nice! But public school is the responsibility of the public sector, which should be fully funded, in part by taxing those who profit the most from industries like Adam’s. What kind of society makes hard-working teachers buy their own scotch tape — or depend on the goodwill of the slightly more prosperous — in order to teach our kids?