Thank you for making WORLD’s Saturday Series a well-read part of our website. We’ve at times presented sermons, and over the next year we’ll occasionally print speeches about public policy issues. To get us started, here’s one I gave at the Manning Centre’s annual Networking Conference in Canada last year.
Four decades ago, when I was 21 and just graduating from college, I decided to bicycle across the United States. I started in Boston and kept going until I reached the city in Oregon where I had a newspaper job lined up. Wanting to go on pretty much a straight line, I bicycled across upstate New York, entered Ontario at Niagara Falls, and kept bicycling to Windsor—but on the way one day I stopped at a War of 1812 battle site. There I read about the American aggression, with the marauding invaders stopped by brave Canadians.
It was my first lesson on how things can look different on the other side of the border. And yet, having read a little bit about trends on your side, we may have more that unites us than divides us. Although Canada has not suffered economically to the extent the United States has, we both have high debt-to-GDP ratios. We both have the need to reduce our national budgets. We both have debates about governmental welfare. That’s what I’ll address briefly. First, a brief history of U.S. anti-poverty efforts. Second, where we are now south of the border. Third, where we are going.
Let’s start with some history. Canada has had its own successes and failures, but in the United States from the 17th century through the 1920s we waged a war on poverty much more successful than recent governmental programs. The warriors were thousands of local, private charitable agencies and religious groups across the country. They did not abolish poverty, but they helped millions out of poverty.
Then, other people, new immigrants, would present new needs, but springs of fresh water always flowed among the poor. Now we have blocks of ice sitting in a perpetual winter of multi-generational welfare dependency—always winter and never Christmas. Those earlier groups helped people out of poverty because the help they offered was challenging, personal, and spiritual. They pushed people to work and gave them partners and mentors to help them find a job and stay in one. They helped these individuals’ self-image by showing them that a wonderful God created them with the ability to do great things.
Federal welfare programs in the United States began in a time of great need: the 1930s. Politicians described the Depression as a plague that would run its course, so welfare was supposed to be a temporary measure: The agency in charge was the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Bureau of the Budget Director Lewis Douglas warned emphatically that “thousands would settle into government-made jobs” if programs were long-lasting, and the result would be long-term economic collapse.
Franklin Roosevelt himself acknowledged the danger of welfare programs becoming “a habit with the country.” In November 1933, he said, “When any man or woman goes on a dole something happens to them mentally, and the quicker they are taken off the dole the better it is for them the rest of their lives.” Early in 1935 Roosevelt argued, “We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destitution but also their self-respect, their self-reliance and courage and determination. …”
Later that year Roosevelt noted, “In this business of relief we are dealing with properly self-respecting Americans to whom a mere dole outrages every instinct of individual independence. Most Americans want to give something for what they get. That something, in this case honest work, is the saving barrier between them and moral disintegration. We propose to build that barrier high.”
From the 1940s through the 1980s, officials did not keep that barrier high. They kept lowering it. Instead of emphasizing challenging, personal, and spiritual help, they increasingly emphasized entitlement. In the 1960s they started banning any mention of God. Government organizations enabled people to stay poor instead of challenging them to come out of poverty.
Many U.S. Republican opponents of welfare from the 1960s to the 1980s complained about the cost of welfare but underemphasized that issue of “moral disintegration.” When I started researching this issue in the late 1980s, conservatives were still complaining about the overall cost in dollars but not the cost in human lives. They didn’t emphasize the problem to the recipients—that welfare encouraged them to give up on work and turn the safety net into a shabby hammock.
In writing about welfare I tried to emphasize the human cost. My kids and I had dogs as pets, so we put food in their bowls and let them lie or run around all day. That was fine for dogs, but for years we treated welfare recipients the same way. That’s not fine for people made in God’s image and capable of working and achieving and helping others.
We in the United States turned a corner when we started thinking about the cost in human lives. We passed welfare reform in 1996 and started emphasizing getting people into jobs and not treating them like animals. The food stamp participation rate—the percentage of those eligible who enrolled—had jumped from 31 percent in 1976 to 75 percent in 1994, but it fell to 52 percent by the end of the decade. The number of food stamp recipients fell from 28 million to 17 million. We don’t know as much as I’d like to know about what happened to some recipients, but a Rockefeller Institute study showed that two-thirds of the nearly 700,000 New Yorkers who left welfare during the late 1990s found jobs, and only one in five went back on welfare.
By 2000 the results were clear. For example, the Cleveland Plain Dealer noted changes in Ohio: “Many of the 111,000 families leaving welfare are doing so because family members have found work. … A survey conducted for the state found that a year after leaving welfare, 66 percent of the people were employed, averaging 38 hours a week at $8.65 an hour.” Those wages kept going up as former welfare recipients got better jobs and joined the middle class.
In the year 2000 Bill Clinton himself bragged in a speech to the Independent Insurance Agents of America:
“If I had said … we’ll cut the welfare rolls in half, you wouldn’t have believed that. … We know now, because of the success our country has had, that if we work together and we set common goals we can achieve them.”
The problem, though, is that the underlying mentality of many government officials had not changed. Starting in 2001 they began to use every opportunity they had to get more people back onto welfare. When the economy turned sour in 2008, that drive continued. For example, the most-used program, food stamps—now called Supplemental Nutrition Aid, or SNAP—had 17 million people enrolled in 2001. Last year that number was up to 46 million, one out of every seven Americans. Much of the growth was before 2008, when economic times were still good.
This brings us to part two, the present. I’d like to make it clear that I’m not arguing against food stamps in some circumstances. I spoke recently with a woman who lives in Houston, Jean Solis. Seven years ago she was 48 and had a 10-year-old daughter. She lived in a battered women’s shelter. Eventually she entered a training course at The WorkFaith Connection, a Christian program in Houston that prepares motivated people to get jobs and persevere in them. [The WorkFaith Connection won the 2012 Hope Award for Effective Compassion.] Four years ago the only job she found right away was in a distant part of the city. With no car, it took three hours by bus each way to get there and back. She worked four hours per day.
That was when Solis reluctantly joined the millions on welfare. She said, “I needed food stamps to feed my daughter.” She worried about her daughter’s perceptions: “What are you teaching your children when you don’t stand up for yourself?” When Solis finally garnered a full-time position she kissed food stamps goodbye: “I stopped on April 1, 2008. That was a good day for me.”
For Solis, welfare worked the way it is supposed to work: Temporary help that saved children from destitution and gave a work-seeking parent time to get on her feet. But I also talked recently in Houston with a man, Scott Wesley. At age 20, while heavily using cocaine and alcohol, he impregnated his girlfriend. Over the subsequent 12 years they had four children and lived off numerous welfare programs, including food stamps. He felt no pressure to work: “I knew the rent would be paid and the children wouldn’t go hungry.”
Wesley and his girlfriend never married, in part because that would have reduced their welfare income. He stole goods that they wanted and traded food stamps for drugs, a common tendency. “When the police raided drug dealers’ houses they’d find caches of food stamps,” he told me. Later Wesley started manufacturing and selling meth. He eventually went to prison. There he fell upward, because God changed his thinking there. When Wesley came out three years later he found a job and has been employed for four years now. He criticizes use of food stamps by those capable of working: “They allow you to be irresponsible.”
It’s hard to know how many of the 46 million Americans now enrolled in SNAP are, like Solis, using them for temporary help, and how many like Wesley are using them as an aid to irresponsibility. But it looks like that second group, the Wesleys, is increasing rapidly, because the Obama administration is trying to enroll more and more people in SNAP.
Now, states compete to increase the number of residents on food stamps, with journalists lauding the “winners.” SNAP advocates work to break down resistance from the elderly and other resistant populations, including the Amish. Poverty advocates—food bank employees in San Antonio and San Diego, Americorps volunteers in New Jersey, students at California State University and other institutions—raced to sign up food stamp users, interpreting guidelines as broadly as possible.
Other organizations have jumped in with high-tech applications. A Business Wire article in 2010 described how “The Greater Chicago Food Depository equipped food stamp outreach coordinators with Sprint 4G-powered laptops. They crisscrossed Cook County, going from food pantries to city agencies to churches to community centers to … speed up the sign-up process.”
The easy availability of welfare is costing taxpayers lots of money, but that’s not the real problem. The problem is that welfare sucks in some and creates a dependent attitude with long-range detriment to them and their children. Given budget pressures, we are likely to end up with watery soup, with some desperately needy families not getting enough to provide good nutrition to children.
Even Americans on the political left recognize that welfare in the United States is not fulfilling its initial mission of concentrating on those most in need. I’ll quote from our leading liberal newspaper, The New York Times:
“The government safety net was created to keep Americans from abject poverty, but the poorest households no longer receive a majority of government benefits. A secondary mission has gradually become primary: maintaining the middle class from childhood through retirement. The share of benefits flowing to the least affluent households, the bottom fifth, has declined from 54 percent in 1979 to 36 percent in 2007, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis published last year.”
When the middle class starts relying on welfare, a society reaches a tipping point. In 1867 the key lyric of a popular song was, “He’d fly through the air with the greatest of ease, / That daring young man on the flying trapeze.” Now, officials croon, “Flop into the safety net. You’re entitled to it.” Now, we start indoctrinating children while they are still in elementary school. Here’s a tipping point: The U.S. Department of Education recently reported that the proportion of U.S. fourth graders enrolled in the free or subsidized school lunch program has climbed from 49 percent in 2009 to 52 percent this year.
Free lunches in school were originally for the poor, and it made sense: How can kids learn when their stomachs are rumbling? But the 21 million children now enrolled in the lunch program come from households with incomes (for four people) up to $41,348. Many urban schools also offer free breakfasts, and some are adding free dinner programs and weekend programs. In Las Vegas, a huge increase in the number of students to be fed “forced the Clark County district to add an extra shift at the football field-size central kitchen.”
In 20th century socialist writing (for example, August Bebel’s Women Under Socialism) and dystopian novels (Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World), central kitchens had a central role in breaking down family bonds. That’s where we are now. Some children need that central kitchen food, but other parents who once prepared bag lunches for their children, or gave them money for school lunches, now rely on government.
Here’s a more extreme indication of where we are in the United States: Let me tell you briefly about SSI, Supplemental Security Income. Americans can get an additional $700 per month if the Social Security Administration deems them unable to hold a job now or at some point in the future. Initially, the program made sense as a way to help those physically disabled. But then it started expanding.
One expansion came when the program started giving money to those who had disabled themselves by heavy drinking or drug use. A friend of mine who runs a homeless shelter in Denver, Bob Coté, talks about the alcoholics who get their monthly government checks, go on a binge, and freeze to death during the winter on Denver sidewalks. [Coté died in late September.]
Another expansion came in 1972 when Congress made disabled children eligible. The goal was to help poor parents who lost wages by taking time off from work to care for children with muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy. Politicians spoke of families having additional expenses such as wheelchairs or taxi rides to hospitals.
Fair enough—but psychologists asked, why not us? They argued that depression can be as disabling as a bad physical ailment. True enough, but while tests reveal physical cancers, psychological ones are often judgment calls—which means that some money-seekers can game the system when they want the money that a diagnosis can generate.
Hundreds of thousands have learned how to do just that. When Washington decreed that at least 10 percent of preschoolers in Head Start programs needed to be disabled, that also created an incentive to have more children so classified. Two Massachusetts parents are now in jail for overdosing their 4-year-old, Rebecca Riley, with a drug taken for treatment of bipolar disorders. The parents and two older children were receiving $2,800 per month for suffering from “mood swings” and attention deficit disorder, and they wanted $700 more for Rebecca.
That’s an extreme case, but 1 million children are now on SSI. Even the liberal Boston Globe said the government has gone too far. Americans used to have a “can do” attitude, but welfare creates a slippery slope, and it’s easy to slide from “can do” to “cannot.” That’s where we are in the United States now.
Let’s turn to the future: Given current trends, Washington University professor Mark Rank projects that half of U.S. children are or will be in a household that uses food stamps at some point during their childhood. He also forecast that more than 90 percent of children with single parents will spend time in a household receiving food stamps.
How do we change that? Our first challenge is to try to prevent a welfare society, where most people are dependent on government for a dole. Our second challenge is not to accept excuses, such as people saying, “No way I can get a job in today’s economy.” That’s just not true.
At The WorkFaith Connection in Houston I saw a room with photos of the more than 1,100 men and women who have graduated from job readiness workshops over the past four years. Many or most of those people are felons, who are statistically the least likely to be hired. But WorkFaith does some training, helps people in adjusting their attitudes, and finds that 78 percent of their graduates get a job, and 53 percent continue in that job for at least a year.
If felons can do it, anyone can. What I saw at WorkFaith reminds me of what a formerly left-wing counselor at an anti-addiction program told me 15 years ago: He had believed that the poor are trapped behind brick walls, but after seven years he had learned that the walls are paper and they can punch right through. So what if a person has messed up? In the movie Blackhawk Down a sergeant tries to turn down an assignment by saying he’s been shot. His colonel replies, “Everybody’s shot. Get in and drive.”
Yes, some are physically or mentally unable to punch, or drive. Others need temporary, emergency help—but 46 million Americans, and more each year? The problem with that enormity is not primarily the cost in dollars but in lives. It’s wrong to tell millions of poor people that their situation is hopeless and that they should settle into a life of dependency. They and all of us are created in God’s image and capable of doing great things.
Now, U.S. politics is divided. The left emphasizes government as the way to create change we can believe in. The right emphasizes the individual. I’m on the right, but I also see that if those are the only two choices, lots of Americans will continue to embrace big government. [Former] U.S. Rep. Barney Frank is often quoted as saying, “Government is simply the name we give the things we choose together.” As long as that’s the only way to do things together, a lot of people vote for more government, especially if they think they will prosper from it.
Moreover, as long as we think in terms of helping others by turning over money rather than turning over some of our time, we won’t get very far. For a couple of years I was flying around a lot to promote real welfare reform and accumulated enough frequent flyer miles to get free upgrades to first class fairly often. If I got into a conversation with the person next to me and he complained about taxes, I would ask: “What if you could reduce your tax bill but instead you’d spend a couple of hours each week on the other side of the tracks, helping a poor child learn to read or an ex-prisoner to stay out of trouble that would send him back behind bars?” Just about everyone preferred to pay taxes rather than give what is truly limited, time.
Going beyond the welfare state requires us, individually and all together, to choose a different path. We need what’s called civil society—non-governmental institutions where people can work together to help their communities and cities flourish. My magazine, WORLD, is having for the seventh [now ninth] year in a row a contest to find some of the most effective compassionate ministries in the country. We get nominations from our readers, then investigate them, then send reporters to them to investigate more and tell their stories.
These are phenomenal groups that help children, homeless adults, ex-prisoners, ex-hookers, but not ex-human-beings—even in depravity, we are made in God’s image. The problem is that the state, with its power to mandate and to tax, tends to crowd out its civil society competition. Every tax dollar the government takes is one dollar that cannot go to charities and churches. Every person who has to work a second job to get money for his family because taxes are so high is one fewer potential volunteer: He really does not have the time. Every mother who would rather stay at home with her children and volunteer part time, but instead needs to go out to work, is one less pair of helping hands.
So we need to shrink government so people have more time and money to contribute, but that won’t happen until we shrink government. Right now, government taxes more, people have less time and money, government responds to needs or creates new ones, people have less time and money. … What can break that downward spiral?
Our 19th century predecessors learned from reading the Bible. I’ve learned from that as well. In Chapter 5 of the Gospel according to John, Christ talks directly to a man who had been an invalid for 38 years and was used to spending his days by the pool at Bethesda. Jesus asks him, “Do you want to get well?” The man responded, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred.”
Jesus loved the man by giving him not what he expected, but what would radically change his life: “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” He told the invalid to become a responsible member of society.
The biblical emphasis is on giving the needy opportunities to select real change, not collect spare change. In Chapter 3 of Acts, a beggar in the temple wants alms, but Peter tells him “silver and gold I have none, but what I have I give to you.” Peter shows his love by giving him the message of salvation, in the way that he might offer living water to a man dying of thirst. To meet a person in the desert, far from any water supplies, and offer him not a full canteen but a $1,000 bill is an act of hatred, not love. He would die of thirst. So do others.
Public policy is important. Political change is crucial. But the kind of policy and change that works is tied up in five words, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The rest is commentary.