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Boulton: Spending billions on things people should do for themselves

Boulton: Spending billions on things people should do for themselves

August 3, 2009
August 3, 2009

One of the more hyped items paid for by the humongous stimulus package passed in February 2009 was the weatherization program for the ‘poor’. I doubt that most people gave much thought to what that was since weatherizing the homes of the ‘poor’ has been an ongoing Great Society program for decades.

The inference, when pitched to the American public, is that these programs entail a special expertise involving equipment beyond the capabilities of the ‘poor’ and if not done for them, would cause the ‘poor’ to suffer untoward expense in heating their homes during the depths of Yankee winters. So with visions of the ‘poor’ huddling underneath mounds of blankets to keep warm because they lack the money to heat their homes, millions of us accept the necessity of weatherization programs.

Then as I was watching a news broadcast on someone’s channel showing crews of volunteers weatherizing someone’s home, it hit me – they were simply caulking windows. Suddenly I remembered being a kid and playing with the basic caulking gun with its inserted putty tube as a surrogate for a ‘Flash Gordon’ ray gun – we all did since caulking gun in North Shore Chicago homes were ubiquitous. Then I made the real connection – what’s the big deal about weatherization for the poor since there was a reason there were so many caulking guns available to me and my 10 year old friends.

Weatherization is simply sealing one’s windows so that the cold winter air can’t seep between the glass and the framing holding the window pane in place. This is what window putty is for and over time the putty tends to dry up and crack before eventually falling out of place and landing on the window sill – you know, life on life’s terms. Thus my dad would dredge out the family ladder every fall and proceed to recaulk all the windows of the family homestead on the corner of Orrington and Ingleside in Evanston, Illinois in to reduce the amount of chill that would float through the house every winter. And he was hardly the only father to do so – it was just what the average homeowner did to maintain his property – along the lines of mowing the yard every week during the summer.

Given that we had a two and a half story home plus an attic, I was spared that chore as a kid and living in the environs of Pasadena, California while in high school worrying about the quality of our window caulking wasn’t particularly important. Then I ended up at the University of Rochester in Western New York where again cold winters were the norm and the issue of cold drafty air in my fraternity house room once again became a concern.

So as I and my fraternity brothers worked to get the house in shape for another school year, I followed in my father’s footsteps and climbed the ladder with caulking gun, putty tube, and spatula in hand to caulk the windows. This was not a high skill sport as I used the spatula to scrap away the old dried out putty and then made a vain attempt to spread the fresh putty neatly around the window panes where they abutted the wooden widow frames – nine panes per window. Altogether this annual fall project was a royal pain as I would eventually end up covered with chips of dried putty before I finished my mission, but so is mowing the yard. However, if one doesn’t want to shiver all winter, it’s what one does.

Now my question is why can’t the ‘poor’ wander down to the local hardware store and purchase a putty gun, tube of putty, and a spatula for a nominal sum – I mean we’re talking about equipment that’s no more technically involved than a hammer and the family screwdriver. Once equipped, they should be able to cope with weatherizing their own damn windows. If they’re too lazy to rise to the occasion to solve this very correctable problem, they probably should shiver through the winter despite setting thermostats at excessively high temperatures and paying more than necessary for utilities– but that’s my uncharitable attitude.

More to the point, somewhere along the line we’re all supposed to be minimally self-sufficient and weatherizing one’s home by caulking the windows seems to fall into that category. The fact that the government has to make such a big deal out of weatherizing the homes of the ‘poor’ suggests that a large segment of the American population feels that the average bear is not up to the job of taking care of himself. So we need armies of Americorps volunteers, with spatulas and putty guns in hand, led by community organizers to canvas northern neighborhoods to find windows to caulk.

The premise is that without such armies, we’re all to lame to get off our duffs and do it ourselves. If this former college student and countless North Shore executives and Northwestern University professors can do it, so can the ‘poor’ if someone thought enough of them to teach them how to fish.

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