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Charlie Sykes: Sykes Writes

Excerpt From A Nation of Moochers: The Learned Helplessness Of Dependency

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From "A Nation of Moochers."


But this is not a book about waste or fraud or even greedy politicians. It is about mooching; and aftermath of Katrina is relevant here primarily as a microcosm of the addictive power of dependency, which is manifested in the learned helplessness of dependency.

“Learned helplessness” is a psychological term to describe someone who, in effect, gives up striving because their actions have no effect on their environment or because they have been lead to believe they have no control over circumstances or events. The term, developed by psychologist Martin Seligman, applies to both animals and humans who learn that effort is futile and therefore behave in a passive or helpless manner.

But the same concept can be borrowed to describe the sense of futility that can engendered by the dependency culture. The Assumption of Incompetence which pervades the welfare culture leads ineluctably to the Learned Helplessness of Dependency.

When a victim is responsible for nothing, then nothing he or she can do will appreciably change or improve their lives. That is up to someone else, someone else who pays for their housing, food, and transportation, and to whom they look to solve their problems and plan for their future. The tragedy of the cycle of poverty is that it passes this helplessness of dependency from generation to generation.

In the face of adversity, a person accustomed to the lack of responsibility or independence is unlikely to respond either by taking control of the situation or by taking the initiative to extricate himself or others from it. More likely, he will wait on others to act.

This, of course, was a scene repeated again and again in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Along with bureaucratic incompetence and political ineptness the aftermath of the disaster also exposed the soft underbelly of the learned helplessness begotten by decades of dependency.

After all these years….

Katrina hit the Gulf coast on August 29, 2005: but nearly a year and a half later, the New York Times was reporting that “life is still precarious and unpredictable for many evacuees, especially those who have depended on the government for a modicum of stability.” A key measure of that dependency: more than 17 months after the disaster 102,000 families were still living in FEMA trailers and “an additional 33,000 are living in apartments paid for by FEMA.”[i]

Throughout 2006 and beyond, there were stories of Katrina evacuees who had settled into their subsidized digs, reluctant to make any move. In May 2006 New York Magazine profiled “victim” Theon Johnson, who had been spent the winter after Katrina as a guest of the federal taxpayer at the JFK Holiday Inn in New York. As the magazine noted, most evacuees had gotten on with their lives, but because of the city’s generous “squatters law,” a judge’s order was required to evict the remaining evacuees like Johnson.

 “And Johnson, 49, isn’t that motivated to leave,” the magazine reported. “For one thing, AMC’s in the middle of its ‘Thrill Me’ marathon. Next up, Gothika. ‘Halle Berry,’ he says with lazy lust.”[ii]

According to the magazine account, Johnson had settled easily into his dependency. Johnson was usually up all night, but occasionally he would go outside and “beg for change, but he doesn’t really like that too much.”

“Most days he just showers and gets back in bed, showers and gets back in bed. Once a week he and another evacuee, a diabetic named Larry, walk to a church off the Van Wyck and get canned goods. When Johnson’s caseworker, Sharon, comes around, she gives him some bus passes and maybe a few bucks, but she’s getting frustrated. ‘They sit around on their butts watching TV. There’s only but so much I can do if they’re not willing to help themselves.’”

Johnson was given $9,000 in housing aid by FEMA, but “he spent it all on booze, cigarettes, some clothes, and food—partying, mostly.” So naturally, he waited around for the government to give him more. “I spent my money just the way I wanted, and I think [FEMA] should send me some more,” he told the magazine. But that trough was closed to Johnson. His FEMA caseworkers offered to buy him a free ticket home to New Orleans, but he turned it down, instead choosing to wait until the Holiday Inn offered him a “buy out” deal, which he was hoping would be about $1,200. 

A few months earlier, self-appointed “representatives of Hurricane Katrina evacuees” holed up in New York hotels demanded that the hotel’s management pay families $2,500 in return for leaving.[iii] What began as a public service had morphed into a shakedown that took various forms over the next few years.

[i] Shaila Dewan,  “Storm Evacuees Remain in Grip of Uncertainty, The New York Times, December 6, 2006

[ii] Matthew Philips, “A Very Late Checkout; New York’s last Katrina evacuees prepare to depart (under duress) from the JFK Airport Holiday Inn.,” New York Magazine,

·         May 28, 2006

[iii] Nicholas Confessore, “Storm Evacuees Seek Money For Vacating Queens Hotel,” The New York Times, February 4, 2006


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