Oh, Char, you are a hard-hearted Hannah’or perhaps a hard-hearted Charlotte.

Please don’t call me an old softie because I was sympathetic with Caroline’for about five minutes. As Compassionate Charlotte, I admit to feeling extremely sorry for her for needing those expensive choppers on a minimum income. Unlike Shipler, however, I wasn’t a bit surprised that Wal-Mart prefers managers with teeth, which make them more appealing when dealing with the lookist public.

Living on the edge means that every unexpected expense can hurl you into the abyss. But choppers weren’t the only things Caroline lacked. We both agree that the reason Caroline makes little more now than she did 30 years ago is that she’s made terrible decisions. She got a rotten start in life. As a child, she moved often, and eventually her father walked out on the family. Her mother married a stepfather who drank and was sexually abusive to Caroline. But it’s Caroline’s own choices that have caused her troubles.

Her only hope is to change herself, not to change society. This would require a recognition of her own responsibility in this mess, something neither she nor Shipler are likely to admit. Caroline has been harmed, in fact, by the very kind of “help” Shipler would increase: It was federal grants, as you note, that helped Caroline buy her house, a “snug, gray clapboard building, built in 1891” for the price of $37,000, a steal. (You can’t make this stuff up!)

Having purchased her dream house, Caroline lacked the basic self-control to stay put the minimum time to avoid onerous reimbursement to the federal government. Because of this, she was unable to reap the benefit of an increase in value of the house, from its original price to $79,000.

Nevertheless, the taxpayer has once again picked up the slack, providing expensive “help” for Caroline: she lives in “a two-bedroom apartment in a newer, safer public housing project, but she can’t get more than part-time work at the store, for about $10,000 a year.” She has, as The Other Charlotte noted, something else to smile about: new choppers, via $400 from Medicaid, and a $322 loan from her daughter.

But is Caroline happier? Nah. Even the teeth don’t make her smile. “She is still trying to get used to them,” Shipler writes, “She misses her home and her friends in New Hampshire. ‘I used to go out with some of the girls, you know,’ she recalled. In Muncie, ‘I don’t get out much,’ she said. ‘I’m broke.'”

Aside from not telling us what Caroline bought with her astounding credit card bills, Shipler doesn’t reveal another aspect of her finances’taxes. At $10,000 to $12,,000 a year, she is paying them. Wouldn’t it be better to let her keep whatever she earns but not to let her get a federal grant for a Victorian clapboard?