Columnists > Voices

Both sides of the coin

Can we overcome poverty's envy and affluence's indifference?

Issue: "Why the long face, Fidel?," May 1, 2004

TIFF IN A TEAPOT: A COLUMNIST FOR THE Philadelphia Inquirer is mad at the publisher of a free local commuter paper called the Metro for turning down an ad by the Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger (contracted with the USDA) that encourages people to apply for food stamps. The testy editorial insinuates patrician motives-that the audience the ad pitches to is not the sort the publisher wants his paper associated with.

But it is something else entirely that catches my eye. In support of his outrage, the columnist writes unproblematically: "Participation in the federal Food Stamp Program has dropped 30 percent in recent years, so the U.S. Department of Agriculture ... is trying to reposition the program."

I am momentarily discombobulated: Food-stamp usage down 30 percent-isn't that good news? Wasn't that the goal? The halcyon state envisioned by the 1996 welfare reform bill? Isn't the last thing we want to do to revive the many-tentacled beast of big government dependence?

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Somebody once said that "there are lies, there are damnable lies, and then there are statistics." What does the 30 percent truly mean? To the man who wakes up in the morning and psychs himself to see every stray fact in the universe as a Republican fact, the 30 percent means there are fewer hungry people today: An improving economy and serious welfare-to-work programs are working. To the man who wakes up in the morning and psychs himself to see every stray fact in the universe as a Democratic fact, the 30 percent drop means we're not reaching hungry people. Let's shake the trees with an ad in the Metro.

A cynical reader of the Inquirer column concludes that legions of scared lilliputian government functionaries out there (themselves dependents at the trough of big government) see handwriting on the wall-the loss of their own jobs if the ship of welfare tanks. That reader will note with a jaundiced eye such developments as New York City's panicked 2000 campaign to enroll warm bodies in the food-stamp program and thereby reverse its alarming decline-not out of unalloyed love for the poor and their nutrition, but as an economic-development issue, since thousands of neighborhood Mom and Pop stores were experiencing withdrawal symptoms from the loss of food-stamp business.

Isn't this a modern rendition of what Demetrius the silversmith said to his fellow craftsmen in Ephesus: Away with Paul! He's blaspheming the magnificent goddess Artemis! (And, by the way, we're losing lucrative statue commissions [Acts 19:21-34].) Wouldn't all of us agree, in saner moments, that in an ideal world (biblical qualification: a world where some poverty remains, no matter what you do [John 12:8]) charity toward the poor would be, first, voluntary, and second, local-the better to evaluate and minister to the recipient's particular physical and spiritual need. But don't all of us wonder: Would Christians rise to the occasion if Uncle Sam's largess were suddenly dismantled? (Why is it like pulling teeth to raise support for missionaries?)

On the other hand, what is poverty anyway? Is it me having less than you? Only a TV but no cable? Only a radio but no CD player? Only daily bread but no vacations in Aruba? My grandmother told me that "poor people should live like poor people," by which politically incorrect statement she meant that I should avoid lust of the eyes and going into debt. And that there is a lot you can do for yourself before you go begging. In fact, there is always a little bit more you can do than you thought you could (see C.S. Lewis's The Horse and His Boy, the chase scene).

I have seen poverty from both sides now, and here is my testimony: "Jealousy is fierce as the grave" (Song of Solomon 8:6). Nothing-no logic, no rhetoric, no law-is powerful enough for it. Even the child cries "It's not fair!"-the first flexing of a radical outcome-based egalitarianism. A chronically poor man with a smidgen of schooling will become a socialist faster than you can say "redistributionism." Especially where the wealthy are contemptuous (Job 12:5), and "voluntary self-restraint is almost unheard of" (Solzhenitsyn).

The vise grip of poverty's envy and affluence's indifference, twin forms of humanism, is broken by one thing and one only: a nurtured hope in a land beyond this one. The blessed have no country but Christ.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.

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