Is it Wrong to Pay Alcoholics With Beer?

Not in Amsterdam, where an innovative program pays alcoholics who clean streets … in pilsner.

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The story was so startling that I thought it had to be a parody — even though it was on the front page of the New York Times. Datelined AMSTERDAM, it detailed how some lucky alcoholics in that city start their day with a couple of beers provided by the government, pick up trash in the morning, get a few more government-provided beers with lunch, work some more, and then cap off the workday with more beers supplied by the government.

Can you imagine the outcry if someone tried to set that sort of program up in Philly?

Even though we’re all willing to pay lip service to the idea that alcoholism is a disease, in our hearts — our all-American, puritanical hearts — we believe drinkers can quit if they really want to. In Amsterdam, they don’t.

“It would be beautiful if they all stopped drinking,” says Hans Wijnands, director of the Rainbow Foundation, the organization that administers the program, “but that is not our main goal.” What is? “You have to give people an alternative, to show them a path other than just sitting in the park and drinking themselves to death.”

The Rainbow Foundation’s cleaning project is designed to give alcoholics something meaningful to do and get them self-sufficient enough that they’re not living on the streets. Members of the cleaning teams — there’s a lengthy waiting list — are given cigarette tobacco, lunch and 13 euros a day, in addition to the beers. They’re required to dress neatly and are forbidden to drink while on the job. They say the project keeps them out of trouble, lowers their intake of hard liquor, raises their self-esteem, and gives them something useful to do. It has also helped clear the city’s parks of rowdy drunks — something no other government efforts could manage to do.

As the Times notes, the program is an extension of the methadone-clinic concept, which has been pretty unpopular here in NIMBY Philly. For a country that professes to be so godly, America can be awfully unforgiving. We like success stories, and alcoholism and drug addiction can be so damned untidy. So can obesity, for that matter: Can’t those people just not eat so damn much?

It’s easy to be holier-than-thou. But our propensity to say, “Just stop” to those who drink too much, do illegal drugs, smoke cigarettes and/or eat too much isn’t very effective. I quit smoking cold-turkey after almost 30 years. Do I think everybody should be able to do that? Hell no, no more than I think everybody should be able to run a marathon. For a country that’s supposed to be full of such rugged individualists, we sure are judgmental about each other. Insisting that those who drink to excess should just not drink may make us feel superior, but it does nothing to address the problem — and it doesn’t get the drunks out of our parks or the homeless off the Parkway.

Considering all the Internet-comments-section-wailing about the goddamned lazy shiftless people on food stamps and in Section 8 housing — not to mention a governor who seems to take special delight in making life more difficult for children and the poor — I don’t expect to see the government handing out beer to drunks anytime soon. But the alcoholics in Amsterdam who now have structure and purpose to their lives would suggest we should consider it. Of course, that would require that we look on alcoholics with compassion and understanding rather than judgment. And judgment is so much more fun.