What should we do about the nation’s poor?
The political season heating up, and I have family and friends who have strong political convictions on both sides of the aisle.
Since they generally work hard, provide for their families, and attempt to live honest and godly lives, I have been thinking why are they on opposite sides of the political aisle.
This question has triggered some interesting conversations that seem to highlight a fundamental difference between the two opposing viewpoints and one I’d like to explore in this article: What should we do with the poor?
This question becomes all the more acute when you know friends who represent millions of Americans who have lost their jobs, gone through bankruptcy or foreclosures, or have had overwhelming medical bills that have either threatened or torn apart their families.
On one side of the aisle, I have friends who are moved with compassion wondering how is it that in a nation as rich as ours, families have to suffer like this. How is it that these hard-working individuals struggle day by day when others who seem far less “worthy” seem to live lives without a financial care in the world?
It all seems so unfair. Outrage fills their hearts, leading them to think, “Doesn’t our government have a responsibility to do something for these citizens?” I imagine it is thought-processes like these that led have led to the rise of many government aid programs like Medicaid, Medicare, Welfare, Food Stamps, etc. These programs were originally designed to help individuals and families have some basic necessities as they went through difficult times.
When I listen to my friends on the other side of the aisle, I hear similar concerns for the poor. However, their focus seems to be on the long-term effects government aid programs have on these families. Rather than being a temporary hand-up out of their financially challenging situation, these programs, all too often, seem to nurture an unproductive mindset and lifelong dependence on government aid. And tragically this mindset is often passed from generation to generation.
In answering the question of what to do with the poor, these friends seem to emphasize argue that extended family, friends, churches and local non-profits see the needs first-hand and can more effectively address the true needs of these families rather than a distant federal government.
Honestly, I can understand the appeal of both sides, and I recognize that both groups of friends desire to help the poor despite the many mischaracterizations of each side.
One side accuses the other of not caring about the poor because they tend to minimize the role of government over other avenues of support, and the thought becomes, “if the government isn’t here to help all people, especially those in need, then why do we have one.”
They also assert that it is unrealistic to think that those who are going through financially difficult times have a support system to help them, and even if they did, they would not turn to them because of the embarrassment they feel about their situations.
The other side makes the accusation that this group doesn’t care to place any check or limits on spending in these government aid programs. These programs, all too often, are not temporary supports, and seem to expand our definition of “basic needs” and “poor.” This group further asserts that as we spend this money on government aid we are only increasing the debt we are passing onto our children which has our citizens at over $16 trillion past broke.
Essentially, I too question the wisdom of having a federal government being ultimately responsible for providing the basic needs of the poor in our country.
However, my objection is not focused on how financially unsustainable it is. Rather, my objection comes from the danger I see in how it redefines the relationship between the government and her citizens.
Once a person, a family, a group of citizens becomes perpetually dependent on the provision of government, something eats away at their inner-man and their identity becomes altered. Their sense of dignity and self-sufficiency falters and aspirations for something better erodes.
When people depend on the government for their financial livelihood, those people are no longer truly free. And we ought never to sacrifice our freedom to make life choices to succeed or fail for the sake of being provided for.
The dangers of government dependency is so rooted in me because I grew watching my mother, as a single mom, resist going on public assistance to help her raise her three children. And sometimes we had to go without electricity, running water, and only had bread and jelly to eat.
And I do remember the day when we eventually did go on food stamps for nearly two years. And I watched my mother work even harder to get off of them. I did not understand why she was so determined to get off food stamps, but I do now.
To this day, I marvel at how my mother resisted accepting government assistance for so many years and when she did go on public assistance how she was able to exercise the restraint of not staying on it.
I am so grateful to her for her example because from her I learned two things. First, you never know the character and power that lies in a person based on whether they have a lot or a little. And second, it is far better to go without and retain one’s sense of identity and self-determination than to feel incapable and dependent.
So, “what should we do with the poor?” For me, the question isn’t theoretical, but it is real for people like my mother, my childhood friends, my own family who has had to struggle from time to time, and for some of my friends who continue to struggle to this day.
The answer I propose is three-fold.
Number one: Let the poor know over and over again that where they financially are does not determine who they are nor is it their position in life. Through hard work, they are still able to be successful and do great things no matter who they are or where they come.
Number two: I would encourage families, friends, and local agencies to come alongside these families without projecting pity, but to help in a way that allows them to maintain their dignity and self-respect.
Number three: I would encourage the federal government to resist the temptation of being the first point of contact and perpetual provider of all the needs of the poor.
The government should set policies that allow people the freedom of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness even if they are poor.
And with this freedom, we may experience challenges and struggles and things may not always seem fair, but how we handle that struggle helps define who we are as individuals and as a nation.
[Bonnie B. Willis is co-founder of The Willis Group, LLC, a Learning, Development, and Life Coaching company here in Fayette County and lives in Fayetteville along with her husband and their five children.]