The Right to Care

AMERICA doesn't always look kindly on those who lend a hand. Rosemarie Furman knows that. Ms. Furman is a former legal secretary and court stenographer in Florida, who started a small business to help impoverished women with simple legal matters, such as name changes, wills, and uncontested divorces.

Her customers apparently were delighted at the chance to straighten out their lives for a modest charge of $50 to $100. Only 10 years before, the Florida State Bar Association had decried a "vast unmet need for legal services" for the poor. Since then, the legal services budget in the state has been cut by 40 percent. Another bar association report found that private lawyers were doing little to fill this breach on their own.

Yet this same bar association went after Furman with a fury. Ultimately, she was sentenced to 120 days in jail for the "unauthorized practice of law."

Her customers had not complained; the only complaints had come from lawyers, and Furman had a notion why. "Every time I make $50 in this office," she said, "some lawyer loses between $500 and $5,000."

Some lawyers may cheat family estates with impunity. They may gum up American life with incessant lawsuits. Yet let somebody try to help the poor with legal problems, and suddenly it's a federal case.

Lawyers are not alone in this dog-in-the-manger attitude. In many realms of helping work, people are excluded simply because they don't have a paper credential or degree. Teaching is a prime example. An industrial chemist, say, with years of practical experience can't teach chemistry in public schools in many states without first getting a teaching certificate. Not long ago, a retired major-league baseball player was denied a high school coaching position because he didn't have a degree in physical educ ation.

The usual excuse for such requirements is to protect the public. If this is protection, then perhaps we could use a little abuse. It is an open secret in the legal profession, for example, that legal secretaries handle much of the routine work; then the lawyer bills at the regular hourly rate. Similarly, some of the best teachers are in private and parochial schools, which don't require teacher licenses or certificates.

What is really going on is less protection of the public than protection of professional monopolies.

With needs growing so rapidly, it makes no sense to permit such barriers against people who want to help. The cult of paper credentials induces a sense of helplessness in the entire populace, moreover, as people become dependent on professionals for the most routine life functions. Even Dear Abby and Ann Landers dismiss many of their letters these days with advice to "seek professional counseling."

Perhaps worst of all, the cult of credentials deprives people of the opportunity to be helpful and to do work that is needed. This is no small thing. A growing body of research indicates that health and helping are closely entwined. A study of one Michigan town, for example, found that people who help others live longer than those who don't. A doctor in San Francisco treats his heart patients by, among other things, having them do things for one another.

This should raise questions of fundamental rights: the right of Rosemarie Furman's clients to get help they can afford, but also the right of Furman - and others like her - to give that help. Americans generally think of rights in terms of getting rather than giving; but that view of individuals and society is rapidly becoming antiquated. The Declaration of Independence says Americans have an "inalienable right" to "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." That doesn't just mean the right to make m oney and get rich. Our own life and happiness, we now know, includes the well-being of others - and our need to be concerned about others.

In short, it is time we took the right to give as seriously as we take the right to get. Those obstacles that preclude people from helping work should be viewed with the same skepticism as laws that preclude people on the basis of race or sex. At the start of the century, legal scholars conceived the right to privacy, which was soon advocated by the courts. Today, near the start of a new century, they should start to define the right to care.

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