Chicago Tribune: The federal government is locked in a debate over how to disburse money to the families of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. Meanwhile, just a tiny fraction of the $1.1 billion in private donations has made its way to families.
What a perfect example of great intentions running into mindless bureaucracy.
Washington could spend years haggling over the profoundly complicated issues raised by the disaster. Should the federal government help the shoe store owner who survived, but whose livelihood was destroyed in the attack? Should the family of a multimillionaire with a hefty life insurance policy receive as much as the family of a $5.15-an-hour dishwasher at Windows on the World? Should charitable donations received by families count against how much the government distributes?
Those are all fine questions. But the families don't have the luxury of time to wait for answers. They need help now. The difficult questions have bogged down the critical task at hand, which is to get money in the hands of survivors who need to pay the rent, the mortgage, the car loan.
Fairness: There will be no distribution of money that neatly answers all the questions of fairness. But there is a law that is supposed to guide it. The law states that the amount of federal compensation will be reduced by whatever family members of victims receive by way of pension or life insurance benefits. But the law was passed six weeks ago as part of the airline bailout package, before anyone could fathom just how enormous the outpouring of private donations would be. The law says nothing about taking into account private, charitable gifts given to victims' families.
The law should, but it doesn't. Compounding the problem is that the tangled mess of organizations handling the private gifts may not be sorted out very soon.
This is a disaster on top of a disaster.
The point of the federal fund is to help avoid further suffering in a time of crisis. The point is to acknowledge the desperate loss already imposed on family members of victims in the attack, and to try to minimize whatever additional trauma or stress might come in the struggle to cover bills or care for dependents.
It does make sense that if victims receive a sizable donation from private groups, the federal fund should limit its contribution on top of that. That doesn't mean the government would get off the hook. It means the unprecedented generosity shown by Americans in response to the attack should be the first resource for victims.
But the endless haggling over who gets how much of the private and public funds has got to stop. The federal government needs to step in with a plan for limited, emergency assistance where it's needed. Then it can sort out, as best possible, the vexing issues of who gets what.
No solution will be completely fair. What is best, and what should be made a priority, is that families receive help soon.

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