The Political Church: Some quick thoughts on welfare

Church StateReaders,

One point of the preceding post on the Torah is to learn about what’s important to God — figuring that whatever is important to him should be important to us. And I think Deuteronomy teaches us that care for the widow, orphan, alien, poor, and oppressed are much higher on God’s agenda than for most of us.

Now, in Deuteronomy God makes provision for these people by compelling his people — by force of law — to take care of the poor. It’s a welfare system, although it’s largely private. This is not voluntary charity as we think of “voluntary.” I mean, no one had a choice but to allow his field to be gleaned — call it a “glean tax.”

It’s not entirely fair to ask whether these passages “endorse” our country’s current welfare system — because Deuteronomy was written 3,500 years ago. A better question is whether these passages suggest that God would approve a wise and righteous, governmentally enforced welfare system. If so, then we can discuss what would be a wise and righteous system.

We have to avoid the false dichotomy of “the current system” or “no system.” There are other choices.

The discussion reveals a great deal of anger against the US welfare system, and I’m not entirely sure why. You see, many of the complaints I hear were resolved by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 put together by Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton, known as “welfare reform.”

The bill’s primary requirements and effects included:

* Ending welfare as an entitlement program;
* Requiring recipients to begin working after two years of receiving benefits;
* Placing a lifetime limit of five years on benefits paid by federal funds;
* Aiming to encourage two-parent families and discouraging out-of-wedlock births.
* Enhancing enforcement of child support.

In granting states wider latitude for designing their own programs, some states have decided to place additional requirements on recipients. Although the law placed a time limit for benefits supported by federal funds of no more than 2 consecutive years and no more than 5 years over a lifetime, some states have enacted briefer limits. All states, however, have allowed exceptions with the intent of not punishing children because their parents have gone over the time limit. Federal requirements have ensured some measure of uniformity across states, but the block grant approach has led individual states to distribute federal money in different ways. Certain states more actively encourage education, others use the money to help fund private enterprises helping job seekers.

The legislation also greatly limited funds available for unmarried parents under 18, and restricted any funding to immigrants (legal or illegal). Some state programs emphasized a shift towards work with names such as “Wisconsin Works” and “WorkFirst”. Between 1997 and 2000, enormous numbers of the poor have left or been terminated from the program, with a national drop of 53% in total recipients. Since there is less training and education available than with the earlier JOBS program, these “last hired, first fired” recipients have been returning to welfare and the caseloads have been increasing.

Even after welfare reform, the system is far from perfect, and I’m not defending it. I just think we need to stop repeating complaints from 15 years or more years ago.

I realize that much of the anger at “welfare” is directed at the health care act recently passed. But we can’t let anger at one law control our thinking. Consider the disability benefits available under the present Social Security program. The program provides a very modest income to people who are permanently and totally disabled. Yes, some game the system and some are wrongfully denied. But who here would support denying benefits to those physically or mentally incapable of employment?  And I’ve not seen churches queuing up to the take the cost off the federal government — although this is among the purest and most easily justified forms of welfare you can imagine.

I work with two organizations that provide care for the adult mentally retarded — mainly Down’s syndrome adults. And these Christian organizations get an essential part of their funding from the disability checks the federal government provides. The organizations take the private money they receive to provide services that the government doesn’t provide. And there are lots of services the government doesn’t provide, meaning these organizations do a lot of fundraising. Without disability benefits, I don’t see how they’d make it.

And so, when I hear complaints about “welfare,” my mind turns to the faces of Down’s syndrome adults I saw at Friday’s night’s fundraiser and those I’ll see at Tuesday night’s (Sarah Palin is speaking).

I know this sound harsh, but we have to shake the reflexive rejection of “welfare” and instead think carefully about these things — because they are important and matter to people at the top of God’s agenda. Yes, not all welfare is righteous — but some is.

The problem is that the political parties are working hard to polarize us into pro-welfare and anti-welfare camps. And I think they both sin in so doing. The government is neither the solution nor the enemy — although it can both offer help and do great harm.

Yes, there are limits to what the nation can afford. Yes, the church should be more involved in the lives of the needy — but the government isn’t stopping us. It’s not welfare that keeps us out of the projects.

This is how I’ve got it figured. If we’re really mad about how much money is being spent on welfare, we ought to do something about it. And that means we ought to help people escape poverty — by helping with job training, by helping rebuild families, by restoring a righteous culture by teaching not only salvation but the restoration of relationships — between spouses, between parents and children, between employer and employee — to those who most need it.

But if our model of church growth is to attract white, middle class families with children by out-competing the other churches in town for families moving into town, it’ll never happen.

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19 Responses

  1. Personally, I would rather the government support well fare for poor people than for rich corporations. Many times people are poor because of poor choices made because they do not know any better. When rich corporations get into trouble it is often because of unadulterated greed.

    Still, governmental administration of well fare leaves much to be desired. The more it can be handled in “relational” contexts without “by the book” regulation, the better it will be.

    Jay, you’ve done a good job of showing us the dilemma. Now if only someone could show us a way out of it!

    You are right that more personal involvement is needed. Perhaps more personal involvement by those who really care (and are not just “doing their jobs”) would influence government to have a gentler, kinder face. As it is, so much of what government does is totally impersonal.

    But what really ticks me off is how politicians pose as benefactors – with other people’s money. But, it has always been so. Jesus talked about how they call themselves benefactors and saviors. (This is true of all politicians. It is how they convince us to vote for them.)

    Jerry

  2. Jay,
    I see and appreciate your point. Though I tend toward an almost libertarian approach to economics, I can’t bring myself to support the notion that all “welfare” programs need to just be eliminated. It is good for a nation to care for those who can not care for themselves.

    I agree with Jerry that a more relational approach to the distribution of assistance would be better, but that also has major problems. It puts people in a position of “having to know somebody” to get help, and that can have some pretty negative repercussions as well.

    We, as Christians, need to be about the business of getting people out of poverty, as Jay suggests. The big question for me is, how?

  3. Jay, you’re right that a lot of the resistance to the notion of “welfare” is based on the welfare systems we’ve seen and experienced. These systems have fostered corruption in the government, fraud by recipients, dependency and an attitude of entitlement. All of that generates a lot of resentment in taxpayers.

    The term “social justice” feeds the sense of entitlement because it makes people feel that the country owes them something. That attitude is a big part of the problem.

    A couple who are great friends of mine have become foster parents of a couple of poor Hispanic children and are in the process of adopting them. Because of that couple’s giving, loving hearts, these children have an entirely new future filled with possibilities. But there is also a very ugly, corrupt side to the story — how the children’s mother came to be here in the first place, her willingness to use her children for her own benefit while completely disregarding their welfare, and how she is managing to live entirely off US government benefits through various tricks and fraud. These techniques are well known in that community, and there are millions of people doing it. Whatever you call that, it’s not justice. It’s not even mercy. It’s theft.

    When I hear someone advocating that the government needs more programs like that, it seems so naive to me. We have far too much corruption already. Poorly conceived programs intended to benefit the poor are at the root of our current economic problems. Entitlement programs are taking down entire countries in Europe. More of the same will just end up putting more people out of work and making more people poor.

    I’d love to see government aid programs that actually work and are well managed and largely free of corruption. So far the government hasn’t show itself capable of that. When Paul was raising money to help the poor in Jerusalem, he made a point to show that the money would be well managed. That’s important.

    We do need more people like my friends who are actually doing something for a couple of kids. It’s easy to be generous with other people’s money. It’s a lot harder, and a lot more rewarding, to make personal sacrifices to help someone face to face. Those who advocate spending other people’s money to help others should first show their generosity themselves.

  4. What we need more of is what they have been doing in Memphis for almost 20 years. A groupd of congregations in the Memphis area support Memphis Urban Ministries (It may have another name now, I’ve been out of Memphis for a decade.) Every year this ministry helps make the lives of Memphis’ poorest citizens better in many ways. The center piece however is a training program that teaches people who have never had a job how to get one, trains them in general job skills, and helps them find employment. Then the ministry helps through the difficult transition phase into independence. All in the name of Christ. This ministry has permanently removed people from the welfare rolls and saved souls all at the same time.

    It is a pattern to follow, one of many. But we can’t complain, have no right to complain about the current state of affairs, until we are trying to solve the problem ourselves with the grace and resources God has blessed us with.

    Whining about welfare is just like complaining about government if you don’t vote. Until you are actively involved in solving the problem you don’t get to complain about the way the work is getting done or the lack of progress.

  5. When I see the griping among Christians regarding welfare for “undeserving” illegal immigrants, or the unappreciative, or for those looking to game the system, I think of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Only one person in that room was “deserving” of having his feet washed – and it was the one doing the washing. Then he said to go and do “as I have done” for others. Doing “as I have done” means washing the feet of the undeserving. We’re not responsible for the response of the served, but we are responsible to serve – without preconditions.

  6. Abuse/”gaming the system” by beneficiaries of church benevolence programs is also a problem, but I think it is much better to have both the public (gov-run) and private (charities) safety nets (despite their flaws) than not to have them.

    I also share your view that churches seem unprepared to provide the level of services that would be required if the government abandoned its role in this area. However, I’m currently reading Darryl Tippens’ “Pilgrim Heart” and was struck by his chapter “Welcoming: Opening Doors to Strangers.” He describes how Christians in the first few centuries AD established “hospitals” to care for widows, orphans, strangers, poor, travelers, sick, etc…often at great personal cost (to health and otherwise). Tippens quotes Rodney Stark:

    “…Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity….And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.”

    Like you I am perplexed by the antipathy that many Christians seem to have for Welfare (I personally am a supporter of the government’s involvement in the social safety net and also of the health reform bill), but I don’t think we should limit our imagination about what Christians could accomplish to God’s glory if extreme devotion to serving self-sacrificially were to become the norm rather than the exception (I’m being critical of myself here as much as anyone).

    It may be that churches will be having more opportunities for this soon. Apparently, the impact of the recession on state budgets has been moderated by stimulus dollars, but as the flow of stimulus dollars lessen states are considering significant cuts to public services (CNNMoney – http://bit.ly/aZZrqw ).

  7. David, I agree with your statement, “We’re not responsible for the response of the served, but we are responsible to serve – without preconditions”.

    If every church served with this attitude in mind, We would see an influx of services like (almost) never before.

  8. “One point of the preceding post on the Torah is to learn about what’s important to God”–like killing everyone who isn’t a Jew.

  9. Jerry that is a potentially blasphemous statement that displays a remarkable lack of knowledge as to what the Torah actually says and of what constitutes a Jew. The Torah does command the extermination of the Amorites in the land – and makes it plain that this is punishment for the Amorites sins which have been worsening from before the days of Abraham- but it also demands fair treatment, peaceable relations and even love for other nations including the Egyptians who had enslaved the Israelites and murdered many of them to keep them slaves.

    God is sovereign and has His own purposes – do not judge His word or His actions flippantly.

  10. It amazes me how some people can express anger at a welfare system (and the abuses that occur) but not at a capitalist system which allows exploitation, greed, selfishness…

    The problem is not the system but the hearts of those who are involved in the system.

  11. Wendy,
    You are quite right that the problem is the hearts of the people involved in the system, and no amount of reform can really deal with that.

    I would suggest that any economic system will have exploitation, greed, selfishness, etc., but socialism failing history suggests that it is worse in that system than in copitalism. The exploitation and so on happens in the government, and we already have that probelm here.

  12. Wendy, capitalism has done more to lift the poor out of poverty than any other economic system known. Can it be abused-yes. Is it perfect-no. Where socialism succeeds is it makes everyone(except those in poistions of power) equally miserable. I’ll take my chances with capitalism.

    The common misconception regarding welfare is that is the product of a benevolent government seeking only to lift a helping hand. It is no such thing. It is an insidious ploy to keep the poor in that condition therefore ensuring their votes to keep those in power, in power. It is delusional and pollyannish to think otherwise.

  13. I’m not advocating socialism! (Although I do believe in welfare – Australia’s system does work to assist many who need it). All I am saying is that it’s not the fault of an economic system when abuses occur.

  14. Wendy,
    I agree, the main problem is in the heart of man.

    gt. Be careful lest you confuse result with intent. It is my strong sense that most efforts that become welfare are well enough intended, but as noted, there still remains the heart of man.

    That said, I do agree that capitalism has a much better record of allowing the poor to climb out of their poverty.

  15. Pastor Mike,

    I respectfully do not believe the intent is to help for the most part, unless the intent is to keep the poor as they are generation after generation. You may have a more generous view of politicians than do I.

    Wendy, I agree with you that any system can be abused and there is no perfect system.

  16. When Deuteronomy 13 argues that you should kill your own children if they seek to leave Judaism, how is it any better than Islam? “Jerry that is a potentially blasphemous statement.” Who is blaspheming, me or the Torah? Who had made God into the hatemonger who commands murder? It was not me. Blasphemy has lost all meaning when defending God’s honor is called blashpemy and blaspheming him is called reverence, and that is precisely what the Torah teachings in these hatemongering passages.

  17. Then what do you do with Revelation Jerry? Seems like the same old intolerant “hate mongering” God shows up killing everybody but His own in the end anyway. So either we have to trash the whole Scripture or you have missed something important somewhere.

    This is the shining failure of Marcion. The “Gods” of the OT and NT are indeed the same. Mercy, Judgement, Compassion and Capital Punishment exist in both. The sole difference is the physical nature of the Kingdom. If you reject Torah you must also reject vast portions of the NT which teach the same intolerance – merely filtered through the viewpoint of a disaffected and defeated rabble instead of a powerful invading force.

    No! As Paul wrote “All scripture is God breathed and is useful…” We may not pick and choose to suit our tender sensibilities. Also as any careful student can see there is too much Torah in Jesus and too much Jesus in the Torah to separate the two.

    You must also heed Paul’s warnings about judging God from Romans 9.

  18. Here’s my two cents: The US Government will never either propose or establish a perfect system for anything, so we’re going to have to deal with problems and weaknesses.

    There’s always going to be a sliding scale between a loose system that both allows corruption and helps lots of people and a strict system that severely curtails corruption while also denying assistance to lots of people. You can see the same sort of sliding scale in other systems as well.

    Examples might include:

    A “kill ’em all, let God sort ’em out” system of extremely limited-appeal capital punishment vs. a “Jail ’em all and let the taxpayers suffer” infinite-appeal capital punishment system.

    A “legal definition of life begins at conception” system that would require legal investigation of all women who conceive, but fail to bring the child to term vs. a “life begins at the age of self-determination” system that allows parents to eliminate unwanted children at any age.

    Between each of these extremes, the government must strive to find an effective means of addressing the needs of society, and Christians must call government to account when its decisions undermine justice and mercy.

    Alan, the country does “owe the people something” – the Constitution defines that debt of responsibility.

  19. I wonder how much welfare money would have been available if we had stayed out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

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