The New York Times "Neediest Cases" feature always runs this time of year.

The first thing to be said of Kristian Hidalgo, 24, today's Neediest Case, is that he genuinely is in pain and has a heavy load to carry.

The second thing to be said is this: Why on earth is he also carrying serious college loan debt? He dropped out of college because of "doubts" about his merits. The time to doubt one's merits is before signing on that life-altering dotted line. Did the loan officer or the college itself fail to have a serious chat with Mr. Hidalgo about debt, whether college might be delayed until he could better prepare, or that he might find work that is lucrative without a degree or certificate?

And I guess the third thing to say is: What about all those tattoos and body piercings? Are they really a good idea when a young man is looking for work? But Kristian's case does pull at the heart strings–he has troubles not of his own making: Kristian has rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, which are made even worse by chronic fatigue syndrome. The medications prescribed would cause sterility and Kristian wants to be a father some day. He relies on over-the-counter medications, which offer minimal relief, and marijuana. But he sounds plucky:

“I’m 24 years old,” he said. “I have my whole life ahead of me. I’m not going to let a disease slow me down.”

Good for Kirstian. But Kristian already has been slowed down by that college loan debt. Kristian took a year off between high school and college, perhaps because he suffered from depression in high school in the South Bronx. Subsequently, he went into debt yo take online classes at Full Sail University, a technology/media for-profit college in Florida. His subjects were game art and design. "But plaguing doubts about his merits led him to drop out after one semester," the Times notes.

The Times article doesn't bother with asking if Kristian gave ample thought to the obligations of a loan. What is nevertheless apparent is that Kristian is a victim of the elite-fostered idea that college is the be-alland end-all for a successful life: :

Currently, he lives with his mother and siblings. Carrying more than $10,000 in student debt from Full Sail, he cannot afford a place of his own. Once his loans are paid off, Mr. Hidalgo said, he may return to college.

Meanwhile, Kristian signed up for training with a nonprofit that prepares low-income people for careers in renewable energy (the renewable energy nonprofit is one of the beneficiaries of the New York Times Neediest funding). Kristian landed a job at Ameresco, an energy company. Alas, he was soon fired for smoking marijuana on the job–yep, that'll do it:

Mr. Hidalgo said he had been open with his employers about his habit, although he had not previously smoked at work. Although he was disappointed, he accepts responsibly for his dismissal and understands that he will need to find another career avenue.

 Mr. Hidalgo has hair painted red and 14 tattoos and multiple piercings.  

His fondness for piercings and body art is evident at first sight. He has 14 tattoos, including a few he designed himself. Many are colorful depictions of characters from comic books and video games, whose designs inspire him as much as their stories and cultivated his own love of drawing.

“How else do you immortalize what you’ve done?” Mr. Hidalgo said. “Paper gets ripped up, gets lost.”

He revealed his most elaborate tattoo by pulling down his shirt collar with two hands, showing what was underneath in a gesture evoking Clark Kent’s transformation to Superman. In place of an iconic “S” on his chest was a large outline of a bat. A split image of Batman and the Joker lies in the center. On one half are Batman’s allies, on the other are several Gotham City villains.

“A lot of my tattoos are literally straight down the middle between good and evil,” Mr. Hidalgo said.

"Evident at first sight" is rich. A stodgy person such as myself wonders if having 14 tattoos "evident at first sight" is beneficial in seeking "another career avenue." And somebody should tell Mr. Hidalgo: our bodies don't last forever. Piercings and tattoos don't "immortalize" anybody or anything.  Also, good and evil are serious matters and sporting body art that is straight down the middle is perhaps not the best life avenue.

And, as for that straight down the middle between good and evil, here is a bit more:

The image — a drawing done with his brother — epitomizes several elements of his life, he said: a passion for drawing, his love of comic books, and the dualistic nature of his psyche, where dark thoughts clash with lighter ones. In his mind, determination spars with dread, and creatively battles stagnancy.

 Dostoyevsky, call your office.

In 1997 Heather Mac Donald wrote an article for City Journal charting how the New York Times Neediest Cases feature, which debuted in 1912, had evolved. Mac Donald wrote:

The prototypical needy case in the first decades of the appeal was a struggling widow or plucky orphan; today's is more likely to be a single mother of five who finds her welfare check inadequate. This change reflects one of the century's most momentous cultural developments: the transformation of elite opinion regarding poverty and need. The elite once held the poor to the same standards of behavior that it set for itself: moral character determined the strength of a person's claim for assistance. 

Mr. Hidalgo represents another step in the evolution ot the Neediest Cases: in his life, one can see the destructiveness of our system that creates college loans for those who will never be able to pay them back, selling this kind of debt as somehow an idealistic thing to do. Mr. Hidalgo has also been harmed by our refusal to expect minimal standards. It is entirely possible that he doesn't know that body piercings and tattoos can be limiting. Possibly, nobody has ever mentioned this to him. Wouldn't do to be judgmental, would it? And good an evil aren't playthings. Has anybody mentioned that to him?

Mr. Hidalgo, with all his ailments, has a tough row to hoe–made tougher by his own choices and the failure of society to point him in a better direction.

I daresay that college loan debt was the furtherest thing from the minds of the widows and orphans of erstwhile  Neediest Cases features.