What is Our Role When Others Fail?

Personal Money Planning |

By Gary Silverman, CFP®

Recently, we’ve been tackling the issue of helping those who can no longer work live in some level of comfort. Let’s just say I’ve had a few comments come my way about this. I think I can categorize the thoughts into three camps:

Camp One: They messed up their lives and deserve what they get. No help needed. They made their bed, let them lie in it.

Camp Two: They already get plenty of handouts from the government. No one is going hungry or homeless unless it is their choice to do so.

Camp Three: They have been let down by society and it is society’s duty to help them.

Do you think that all but the last camp is cold and heartless? Well, so far my Camp Three commentators have been willing to help, as long as the money comes from “someone else.” I guess it’s easy to be generous if you don’t have to pay the bills.

The thing is, they all have a point. A lot of people who end up at retirement with no money messed up somewhere. They didn’t get the insurance they should have. They didn’t study hard enough in school. They gambled or drank their way out of solvency. They spent more they could afford and saved less than they should have.

Yes, there are a myriad of social programs, whether from the federal or state governments or through charities to help those in need. Yet most of us know someone who “the system” has let down along the way; and, at least for them, you might agree with Camp Three.

Even if we can get some from Camp One into the discussion with the idea that someone deserves to be helped, we are left with a dilemma: We don’t want to withhold money and resources from those that truly need help while we don’t want to waste money and resources on those that don’t. The tighter you squeeze the rules to keep the undeserving from getting help, the more likely you are to squeeze out the deserving group. The more you open up the system to ensure you don’t miss the ones it is designed for, the more you open the system up to waste and fraud. If there is a perfect middle, I haven’t seen it.

Then there is the question of who deserves what. How many times do you help someone up before you realize it’s just not going to work for them? And then you’re left to wonder who’s at fault for that…someone’s chosen actions or the failure of the society they live in?

Now that you’ve spent time looking at the problems, you can see how finding one overall solution may be impossible. No matter what you try, there will always be unintended consequences. For now, look to your grievance with proposed solution and ask yourself, what could change?  What can be done to help folks help themselves? What can be done to make the programs more effective?  As for Camp Three,  I ask not what you think others should do, but what you are willing to do.


Gary Silverman, CFP® is the founder of Personal Money Planning, LLC, a Wichita Falls retirement planning and investment management firm and author of Real World Investing.