I promised to explain why taxing the nation heavily in order for the government to provide social services is not a good idea. I have already explained that it is not what Jesus taught. I observe that many churches and religious leaders try to edit Biblical teachings to make them say that God wants the government to do this sort of thing, but when I read the Bible and look for the plain meaning of the words, that is not the message I find.There is a very important reason that government is a poor choice to hand out social services. The reason is overhead. If people compared the accountability for good stewardship of government money to the way charitable foundations use their money, nobody would want to give the government any money at all. Every government project is top-heavy with administrative costs. I have always admired charities like the Heifer Project and Lutheran World Relief, because more than 90% of the money these charities receive actually goes to the services they provide. The people who run these charities do not receive lavish paychecks and benefits. They don’t spend fortunes on buildings and grounds. They believe that when somebody gives them a dollar, the donor wants to help feed the hungry and heal the sick. These charities demonstrate that it is possible to pay administrators and house the offices while still funneling the lion’s share of their revenues to people in need.
The government feels no such compunction. Civil service employees are paid on a scale most private citizens would envy, and their benefits are equally impressive. The pay and benefits are distributed according to paygrades that are consistent across the spectrum of all civil service work, which isn’t a bad thing by itself, but it does mean that the mantra that government work should pay better than private work is enforced even in charitable endeavors. It is not my purpose to argue about how much a government employee should be paid. My purpose is to point out that when you give a dollar to a private charity, people who need the charitable services receive a lot more of that dollar than they receive when you give a tax dollar to the government.
A need to regulate further complicates and hampers charitable work. If I give money to a homeless person who solicits me outside the grocery store, I risk my money on a bet that the person is genuinely homeless and in need. I do it because Jesus taught me to take that risk. However, the government cannot and must not do that, due to the nature of government. If the government simply gives money to every person who shows up to ask for it, then we all are rightly outraged, because there are too many people who will ask for that money when they don’t need it. If I lose twenty dollars by giving it to a charlatan at the grocery store, that is no tragedy, and God can sort that problem out at his own perfect time. If the government loses thousands by paying unemployment benefits to a lottery winner, we all think that both parties to that transaction need to be punished, and there ought to be a law to prevent this from ever happening again.
The solution is for Congress to pass a law. We all know that few laws are ever about just one thing, and this means weeks and months of wrangling and negotiations in order to word the law or attach the amendment to some other law or attach amendment to this perfect law, and so forth. Having passed the law, the government program administrators must then write regulations to define how the law will be administered. Every form used by the program must be reviewed in order to assure that they collect the information required in a manner compliant with a lot of other laws and regulations about confidential information. Every employee must be retrained to interview, evaluate, report and approve or deny clients based on the new regulations. The new law may even direct the program to appoint a new officer, who will need new staff, which must be housed in new offices which need new furniture, and so it goes.
To tell the truth, nothing government does is ever done efficiently by the standards of common sense. Most citizens claim to want the government to use some common sense, but if the government did not write voluminous regulations and create voluminous forms, the government would not begin to be as acccountable as we all wish it were. Sadly, even with all the laws and regulations and forms and audits, government is still a high maintenance entity.
The other big reason government is not a good administrator of social services is that government is not kind. Government operates according to the law. When we think about the fact that none of us can live up to God’s law, and when we think of what the Pharisees did in an attempt to make it possible for people to do it, then we begin to see why government cannot be charitable. Government is more like the Pharisees than it is like Jesus. Government laws used to give a “dole” to families in need. When it became apparent that many families included a healthy man who refused to work, government responded by saying no “dole” would be given if a husband/father lived in the home. The men targeted by this law were supposed to be motivated to get busy and get a job and take care of their families. The law, however, did nothing to provide that motivation. Laws do not motivate; laws regulate and irritate. No law can ever be a loving solution to problems inherent in human nature. The outcome of the law was not a rush to gainful employment by the targeted husbands and fathers. Instead, husbands/fathers abandoned families in order to make them eligible for a charitable “dole.” Federal Pharisees initiated the breakup of families, not the death of poverty. Poverty continued to thrive.
Government must have laws and regulations and policies, and it must administer in compliance with all those laws and regulations and policies. Government cannot operate on the standards of common sense, and it absolutely cannot be charitable. Every applicant for government services must be demonstrated to be eligible, and there can be no fudging over a penny too much or a man who can’t find work or any other little thing that charitable hearts could deal with.
Charity in the name of Jesus is certainly admonished to be wise as a serpent, but charity in the name of Jesus can also be harmless and actually charitable. Common sense, grace and love drive charity in the name of Jesus, not regulations, policies, and a hierarchy of administration from here to next year. We who claim the name of Christ commit to follow him and be like him. Christ is the one who healed ten lepers without asking them any questions or filling out any forms. Only one ever thanked him. Over and over as Christ healed crowds of people, he showed us that we are to serve and love our neighbors without creating administrative barriers that demean them. We are called by Christ to serve and love our neighbors and to build up our neighbors. Government simply cannot do that. If we are serious about helping people in poverty, we must be willing to risk helping a charlatan now and then. Never forget that Jesus loves people who are behaving badly just as much as he loves the innocent victims of poverty. In the name of Christ we can and must accept the risk of helping an unworthy person as an act of love and service. The government cannot do that, because that is not the mission of government. The government will never be the visible kingdom of God on earth.