Essay on Poverty and Welfare
Today it seems as if everyone has a theory about fighting poverty, now it is not necessary
to be moving in the theoretical plane. Our country has had successful anti-poverty
programs that were effective back a century ago, effective because they were based
on these seven points: affiliation, bonding, categorization, discernment, employment,
freedom, and God. But a key element in all of them is personal involvement and
challenge, both material and spiritual.
If folks a hundred years ago could help others to move out of poverty,
and then turn their attention to the next group of immigrants and impoverished, why
can't we? Did they have more time than we do? No, even though we feel stressed, their
work days on the average were longer. Did they have more money? No, we are far
more affluent as a society now. Did they have more space in their homes, so they could
take in another person and we cannot? No, on the average our houses are far larger.
Did they have less of a drug and alcohol problem? Probably not. They did have fewer
single-parenting situations - there was less illegitimacy and divorce then - but life
expectancy was lower, so there were lots of orphans and half-orphans. We're more
spread out now, but our travel time is not any greater.
What I learned leads me to wonder: Why can't we do the same? Were
Americans then a different people than we are today? Have we become so corrupted
that we don't care about others? Have we become so lazy that we are unwilling to
suffer with? I think not. I hope not. But we have become used to having someone else
do it for us - even though we know that a professional social worker, with a case load of
200 or so, can't do much more than shuffle paper. Bad charity drives out good.
My conclusion is that when we complain about a spendthrift modern
welfare state, we're right about the costs but we're actually stating the problem
backwards. The major flaw of the modern welfare state is not that it is extravagant, but
that it is too stingy. It gives the needy bread and tells them to be content with that
alone. It gives the rest of us the opportunity to be stingy also: We can soothe our
consciences as we scrimp on what many of the destitute need most - love, time, and
challenge. We need to recapture the optimism that a look at history can provide. We
need to recapture the understanding that a true definition of compassion suggests.