Dear Howard Resident: The scandal of geriatric solicitation

By Tom Baxter

By the time Howard had gone into a nursing home and his son and daughter-in-law had returned from the West Coast to take care of his affairs, the mail bulged from the mailbox every day, often overflowing in stacks 10 inches thick.

For a man of his limited means, Howard always gave generously to political and religious causes, but in the last year or so before he became unable to care for himself, the amounts of the checks he wrote began to increase. Correspondingly, so did the volume of mail, until his home became the postal equivalent of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

The family discovered that in that last year he wrote some 5,000 checks, for a total of about $70,000. His son estimates the total for all his sunset years to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. His daughter-in-law collected about $400, just from the stamps on addressed envelopes enclosed in the letters to make it easier for him to contribute, and the dollar bills and coins sometimes included in the letters as a come-on.

As they struggled with the challenges of providing for his care, they collected the mail – from closets and cupboards, with more arriving in the mailbox every day – in 27 32-gallon garbage bags which they stacked in the carport. We all get solicitations, every day, and as we grow older the volume increases noticeably. But sifting through just one of those bags is a scary education in just how far fundraisers will go to extract money from those whose judgment has begun to wither.

The letters came addressed to him in his full name, or as Mr. Howard, frequently as Howard Resident. Sometimes the same mail piece would arrive on the same day in four different envelopes. This proved to be an effective strategy as Howard’s mind began to go. He would write a check to an organization, and forgetting that he had done so, open another envelope from the same outfit and write another check.

Sometimes the letters looked very official, like the “Notice of Request to Convene Grand Jury,” from Gary R. Kreep, attorney at law. “This is a private legal matter that requires immediate attention by addressee only. It is against federal law for anyone other than the addressee to open this mail,” a notice said on the envelope. That seems to be a common practice, to ward off any possible interventions by family members or friends. “For Private Business – Civil Penalty for Interference,” another notice says, on an envelope marked “Social Security Benefit Documents Enclosed for Review.” Inside, a “bulletin” warns that “Senior citizens will pay a heavy price if the big spenders keep pushing Social Security to the brink.” Ballots and surveys are also very popular – but always accompanied by a request for a donation.

Sometimes the entreaties for money were printed in a typeface that imitated the shaky handwriting of someone Howard’s age. “He thought they were writing to him, personally,” his son said. Very often, they conveyed a sense of urgency. “What you as a conservative do in the next 3 days is absolutely critical,” announced a letter from Hon. Mike Huckabee. “Court orders use of Islamic Law in American courts! Islamic Law isn’t coming to America… It’s already here!” said a letter from Remember America’s Heritage. “Dear Mr. —: I have tried several times, unsuccessfully, to reach you by phone, which is why I am writing you this urgent letter today,” begins a letter from the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

On and on they go, for every cause from stopping female infanticide in India, to combating Chinese currency manipulation, to challenging Barack Obama’s legitimacy as an American citizen. Many of those seeking contributions were mainstream politicians, like House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor; many others were fringe groups of one stripe or another. But clearly they were all working from the same mailing lists, and clearly, Howard’s generosity was a green light to send more computer-generated letters.

At first, his son tried writing to the most frequent letter-writers in an attempt to get them to stop. His father, he wrote, “is dead, and will remain dead.” Eventually, the fact that no more checks were being written slowed the flow, but mail still comes to the old address.

Although Howard was obviously a man of conservative leanings, the practice of preying on the aging and generous is certainly not limited to one side of the political spectrum, as a recent Weekly Standard article  about the Southern Poverty Law Center details.

This practice has become so common that it is seldom called out for how despicable it is. Many good works would not get done without systematic and energetic fundraising, but the way in which Howard was cajoled and misled at the end of his days goes beyond the bounds of decency. There was no automatic alarm in any of the computers to warn that someone who would write more than one check on the same day was no longer fair game. There was instead a switch that signaled: Send more.

Howard might seem to be an extreme example, but his son isn’t so sure. The stacks and stacks of letters are compelling evidence that he’s right. If organizations weren’t raking in a lot of money in this way, they wouldn’t support the U.S. Post Office so enthusiastically.

What happened to Howard and his money should be a warning to every family, and a shame to any organization which engages in this systematic leaching of those sympathetic to the cause it represents. He was a real person, but to those organizations he was just a hot spot on the database.

In his working years, by the way, Howard was a mailman.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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