Ending Welfare as We Know it?
This country's welfare system draws criticism, as a magnet draws metal filings. Many people are exceedingly frustrated with the system. They are angry with poverty programs that not only fail to solve poverty, but exacerbate other social problems.
There are many reasons cited for this failure. This is simply another in a long line of failed government programs; the programs do not provide adequate incentives to work; the programs favor family breakup; etc. Each of these and other arguments have merit, but I want to suggest that these programs are conceptually flawed, and therefore utterly unworkable.
The popular explanation that comes closest to the mark is that the system fails to provide adequate incentives (either positive or negative) to reenter the work force. These programs provide benefits in exchange for nothing. In a perverse manner, it is more advantageous to be in these programs than to engage in low-paying work. The cash and in-kind benefits garnered by participants exceed the potential earnings for many entry-level jobs. It has been estimated that a welfare mother in California with two children can receive tax-free benefits with a cash value totaling $21,804 per year (Ralph Reed, Main Stream Values Are No Longer Politically Incorrect, Word Publishing, 1994).
No Work, No Food
Clearly this argument contains some truth, but the problem is situated a step further. These programs fail because they encourage idleness. They provide participants with great incentives to do nothing for an indefinite period. These programs are flawed because they violate a basic biblical tenet. Paul wrote, “We gave you this rule: 'If a man will not work, he shall not eat'“ (2 Thessalonians 3:10). The language is very straightforward. It demands that the able-bodied work, if they want to eat. The current poverty programs make no such demand. Participants can remain on the rolls as long as they wish. These programs were destined to fail from the beginning by providing immense incentives to become and remain idle. This is why these programs do not ameliorate poverty.
This explanation is not new to us, but it fails to account for the level of destruction wrought by these programs. These programs not only fail to solve poverty, but exacerbate other social problems such as crime, drug dependence, etc. Proverbs teaches that “The sluggard buries his hands in the dish; he will not even bring it back to his mouth!” (Proverbs 19:24). Herein is the explanation for the ruinous nature of these programs. Eating is a basic function, and is required to sustain life. Proverbs says that a lazy man will not have the initiative to eat the food that is before him.
Idleness breeds more idleness until individual responsibility collapses. This is one of the reasons that these families are breeding grounds for crime, drug addiction, and sexual immorality. The failure to work leads to shiftlessness in other areas of one's life, including parenting. Children are not properly cared for, even though adequate time exists for nurturing. The absence of fathers is more important, but given the available time, why are these families unable to make up a portion of the deficit? The reason is that laziness is infectious, and begins to spread to all aspects of a life including parenting. An unfortunate consequence of the current system is that the children suffer as parents are encouraged and continue in bankrupt behavior.
The Bible clearly teaches that laziness is a sin that God punishes. “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!… and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man (Proverbs 6:6, 11). It is clear that these programs promote behavior that hurts recipients.
It has been suggested that it would be unchristian to drastically alter these programs. I would like to suggest the contrary is true. A good case can be made that unknowingly and maybe knowingly, we are hurting the poor by promoting ruinous and sinful behavior. This is not only an unfortunate consequence, but it puts us in the unenviable position of being an oppressor of the poor. “What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?” (Isaiah 3:15). We do not want to be on this side of the ledger.
Welfare programs are not only oppressive, but have become ghastly in their expense. As we have cast around for ways to fix them, we have left a fatal flaw in place. We, with misguided sincerity, have pressed the government to pour more resources into defective programs, but each of the many reforms has failed to adequately deal with the most glaring problem of encouraging idleness. This is why these efforts fail, and the problem spirals downwards.
Compassion for the Poor
Compassion must be our watchword in dealing with the poor. “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11). Some of us are called to serve the poor. The remainder should have an open wallet for the poor. It is important in these circumstances that we do not begin to resent and bear malice towards those in need. Keep in mind that they are encouraged by the programs that we collectively design, operate, and fund. This does not mitigate their responsibility, but we also cannot deny that we have had a hand in it. We need to actively seek to help those in need, while working towards a better collective system of alleviating their suffering.
Clearly, government welfare programs are fatally flawed, and probably beyond redemption. The obvious solution is to end these programs, and allow families, churches, and community groups to provide for these needs. This should be an ultimate goal, but I would like to note that a more immediate opportunity is available. All things are possible for God, but it may be wishful thinking to expect these programs to be disassembled overnight.
Currently, there is a move to reform these programs. It is vital that we adopt rules that force individuals off the welfare rolls after a reasonable period, such as two or three years. It is important to focus our attention on the most perverse aspect of these programs. The notion of forcing these people to work is quite popular: most people are rightly angry that their hard-earned tax dollars are used to support people who do not want to work. It is difficult to make the case that after three years you cannot find a job.
Where we have a chance, we should share with our friends and relatives the biblical notion that idleness is wrong and only breeds more idleness. We should also demand changes in these programs from our elected representatives, and be prepared to shoulder this burden. We should join in this struggle knowing that “the battle is the LORD'S” (1 Samuel 17:47).