Town Office


Holmes, Edward


Short Story


Edward Holmes, a writer and English professor at the University of Maine, sets up the perfect philanthropic conundrum in "Town Office." His story begins with Phil Ackerman, a new selectman in a small Maine town, asking a question of his superior: "Which are the worthy poor?" Phil has recently discovered that the town's surplus funds are given through the local Ladies' Aid to a "respectable family" that "ain't rich," but isn't truly poor, either. The problem Phil sees is the way the Ladies' Aid interprets the phrase "worthy poor"--they take it to mean the "respectable poor" and in so doing keep the funds from those who need it most. But when Phil takes matters into his own hands, he discovers the consequences of altering established ways and about the difficulties of running an institution.


The Perfect Gift, Amy Kass (Indiana University Press, 2002).




Citizenship and DemocracyGiving and ReceivingLeadership and ResponsibilityMoney and Wealth

Big Questions

What are our responsibilities as citizens? Who or what are we responsible for?What makes a "good" citizen?How do we know what a gift achieves?How much should I give? What, if anything, might limit my giving?What does good giving require?What makes a good gift?Who should we give to and why?How should leaders handle opposition?What do we expect from the people we lead? What do we expect from our own leaders?What makes a good leader?Is money a good gift?What is poverty, how should we respond to it?

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. What do you think is meant by the term ‘worthy poor’? How does Frieda Roberts define it? How does Phil Ackerman define it?
  2. Why is there little outward resistance when Phil Ackerman changes the protocol of how the funds are distributed? What do you make of it being described as a quiet revolution?
  3. Why is Phil so upset by Frieda’s visit to him?
  4. How is the narrator able to conclude that Phil Ackerman will be in office for a long time?
  5. Should we only help people who want to help themselves? Why or why not?
  6. Why do Phil and the narrator agree that someone will always be hurt in acts of philanthropy?
Back to Resources