I’m simple guy. When I find complex issues, I try to boil things down to simple terms. Lately I’ve been thinking about the American welfare state. Something about it bothers me. Well, more than one thing, actually. But what is the real problem here?
People (children!) don’t have enough to eat. The solution is easy: give them food. So, we give food away in public schools with free lunch programs. In many schools there are also free breakfasts. Their families may receive food stamps, so there is food at home for them, too. That should take care of the problem, right?
Then we have people who can’t afford a place to live, so we create government housing projects. Everybody knows what you mean when you say “the projects.” Tenants can get reduced rent, with the balance paid by taxpayers.
For others, we help them buy houses. It is much better to own a home than to rent, right? So we require banks to lend more freely and then we guarantee the loans with government money. Everyone wins, of course.
Unless you look at the results. This war on poverty is being lost. Statistics show it. There are more poor now than ever. What is the problem? I believe it is a problem of attitude. Entitlements given by the government create attitudes of dependence.
People tend to develop an attitude of dependence toward their provider. When people depend on the government, they develop a relationship with a bureaucracy, a system. They develop loyalty to the system and work to maintain the system. When something threatens the system, the source of their livelihood, they perceive this as a personal threat. They fight instinctively to keep the status quo. This passion to maintain a free ride robs individuals of personal initiative, and, I believe, damages their souls. We are only fully human when we can share in the creativity which is part of God’s image in us.
When funding is cut for government programs, regardless of the reason, those dependent on government often become angry and lash out. We saw this recently in Greece, when riots broke out after public assistance was reduced. Never mind that the government is bankrupt.
Dependence on government breeds a defensive attitude, guarding the goose that lays the golden eggs. There is a visceral response when the goose is threatened or when the goose stops laying. People act out of anger or fear. They believe that their only hope is in the system. Ultimately politicians control their lives, because politicians control the flow of assistance. Politics, then, is everything.
This system has lots of unintended consequences, including a corrupt political system, a housing bubble, growing poverty, lack of productivity, lack of responsibility, materialism, and cynicism.
There is an alternative. It’s not new. It is thousands of years old. God instructs his people to take care of the poor. “There should be no poor among you” (Deuteronomy 15:4). Jesus tells the rich ruler to give sell everything he has and give to the poor. The apostles instruct churches to take care of the poor.
Taking this charge seriously, a church might have a food pantry, a clothes closet, budgeting classes, job training courses. They could give these goods and services freely.
Those who receive these gifts are likely to develop an attitude of dependence as well. But here is the important difference. They may depend upon these Christians for food, shelter, clothing, counseling, training and assistance, but they know that these things are given in the name of Christ. These poor would depend ultimately on Christ. They come to depend on God himself. This is really where God wants everyone to be, depending on him.
What springs from an attitude of dependence on Christ? Not fear or anger; not a protectionist spirit of keeping the goose alive. Dependence on God produces a sense of responsibility.
God doesn’t threaten to cut people off from food and shelter. He promises that he will provide all of life’s necessities – and more – to all who seek his kingdom first. The Bible tells us to be productive and to provide for our families, but always to depend on him.
Dependence on God has positive side effects, including increasing compassion, growing personal initiative, and a decrease in poverty. Sounds like a good plan to me.