To the editors:
In April I wrote a Reader profile of a man named Johnny Washington. Washington lived with his girlfriend and their two children in a west-side basement flat and survived on general assistance and pocket money obtained from doing odd jobs, notably giving haircuts to neighbors. The original piece was reprinted in the Utne Reader (no relation to the Chicago Reader), a digest of the alternative press, in its November/December issue. An introduction to the reprint contained the news that after the original article appeared, the Illinois Department of Public Aid had denied Washington his baseline benefits and that Johnny had left his family and was now reportedly living in abandoned cars.
The reprint generated a number of letters questioning the ethics of the Reader's having included in the original story the fact that Johnny took in odd-job money. "The minute I read that Johnny Washington was charging for haircuts," said one letter writer, "I knew . . . welfare would get him. The Chicago Reader should have known that, too. You elitist pigs!"
Just before the original story ran, I asked Johnny whether he objected to the information about his odd jobs, specifically the haircutting, being included in the article. It had occurred to me and my editors that the inclusion of such information might put Johnny at some risk, and we felt that the decision was best left up to him. Johnny said it was OK to use the details. Afterwards, in our last conversation, he did tell me angrily that Public Aid had lifted his benefits because officials learned about the haircutting through the Reader story.
I tried to present a realistic portrait of one poor man struggling to maintain his dignity against large odds. The necessity of Johnny having to rely on odd jobs to make ends meet contributed to that portrait, but it was neither my intent nor that of the Reader to make Johnny suffer for the sake of a better article--hence the last-minute question to him. In actual fact, Johnny spoke too soon about his benefits being revoked: Public Aid records now show that he and his family receive a "family of four" allotment, totaling $386 a month, plus food stamps and medical benefits.