We are bombarded daily by political speeches that declare that our country must improve its help for poor people. We must do more to provide food, clothing, shelter, medicine, cars, phones and internet access for poor people. It sounds quite loving, and people look askance at anyone who questions the ever-increasing outlays for these purposes. There is only one problem: we are losing the war against poverty. The more money we throw at it, the more people fall into poverty.
How can this be?
For answers, we look at the humble aspirin tablet.
When I was a child, my mother told me about the miracle of the common aspirin. She told me about the days before there were aspirin tablets, and she told me that the availability of aspirin had made life much better for a lot of people. When I got headaches or fever, my mother gave me aspirin, and soon I felt better. Pain was reduced or eliminated. Fever went down. I felt better for a while—until the aspirin wore off. Then I needed more aspirin.
Why did I continue to need aspirin?
Because aspirin reduced the symptoms, but it did not address the cause.
The same thing is true when we give a hungry man a meal or pay for the ER charges for an injured child. We reduce or even remove the symptoms of the problem, but we do nothing to address the cause of the problem. The hungry, the sick, the homeless, and those with a variety of problems can be made to feel better about things if we reduce or remove the symptoms of their problems, but unless we solve the problem that made people hungry, sick or homeless, they only feel better as long as we continue to chase away the symptoms.
Once upon a time in my childhood, my family lived next door to a family with a new baby. The new baby arrived shortly after his youngest sibling’s eleventh birthday. Both his siblings were girls, and they thought the new baby brother had been provided for their delight. They loved taking care of him, and they hated to hear him cry. Therefore, whenever he cried, they ran to comfort him. If he wanted to stand up, they picked him up and set him on his feet. When he tried to learn to walk, they held his hand. As a consequence, he could never get up by himself when they were not around. His sisters saw to it that their baby brother wanted for nothing and had no reason to learn to pick himself up. Then school started. Suddenly, the baby boy who had been the center of attention all day every day was all by himself. When he lost his balance in the middle of the living room floor, he fell and did not know how to get up again. He cried, even screamed, because he did not know what to do.
The mother of the baby was wiser than the two big sisters. She let the baby cry for a while in frustration. Then she let him crawl over to the sofa where he figured out how to pull himself up. Later, when he fell again, she let him figure out how to stand up without the sofa the baby was walking, run. Soon the baby was running, climbing and standing himself up without help, all because his mother allowed him to learn rather than helping him to do what he could much better do for himself.
The US culture has become like those two overly helpful big sisters. The US culture focuses on alleviating symptoms of poverty, hunger, homelessness and disease without doing anything to reduce or remove the causes of these problems. Sadly, one really big reason that there is so much poverty, hunger, homelessness and disease is that many healthy and intelligent human beings have been made to feel helpless. It is a crime against humanity that so many people have been led to believe that they live in grimy, deteriorating, crime-ridden neighborhoods because they are incapable of changing their lives. Instead of being led to mature in perseverance and self-discipline, instead of being taught how to find and keep a job, they have been told over and over that what they need is more help.
They need help to buy food, and they don’t need to learn how to earn money to buy their own food.
They need help to find jobs and they should be paid as much as they think they need.
They need help to get housing, and they should have housing as nice as the housing people buy with money they earned.
They need help to get their kids educated, and they should trust the government to know what their kids need to learn.
The poor, the hungry, the homeless and the sick do not need more help from the culture nearly as much as they need to know that they can and should take care of themselves.
Return to the image of the baby screaming in the middle of the floor. That baby looked helpless, and he felt helpless, too. Up to that moment, every time he whimpered someone came to lift him up on his feet. That baby had no idea that he could simply get up on his feet by himself. The most important thing he needed to learn was that he could do it himself.
Likewise, most of the poor, the hungry, the homeless and the sick need to know that they can and should take care of themselves, and they need to know that the more they take care of themselves, the more freedom they will have. Human beings are born with a lust for freedom, and nothing hampers freedom more than being needy. Nothing makes a person needy like the feeling that he cannot take care of himself. The poor, the hungry, the homeless and the sick need to be inspired to start taking care of themselves.
There certainly are people who are incapable of caring for themselves. People who truly cannot care for themselves need help. They actually need help with all sorts of issues. It is right and proper that the culture should care for them and protect them. There are very few people this needy.
To say this is not uncharitable; to say this is to recognize the gifts with which God blesses each person he creates. It is certainly true that people become poor, hungry, homeless and sick under circumstances that may temporarily prevent them from taking care of themselves. During times like that, friends and family have the obligation of love to care for those in need. However, the US culture is building a social prison that gradually closes all the doors to self-sufficiency for those who become ensnared in it. How does someone become ensnared?
Here is an example. Recently a blog post advocating reform in social services described a case that the writer thought justified reform. A woman who had a part-time job and food stamps, which amounted to a total of $15,000 per year, married a man who had an income of $15, 000 per year from his work. After the wedding, the woman lost the food stamp benefit because the man’s earnings increased the household income to $30,000. The social reform advocate said that it was wrong for the woman to lose the food stamp benefit. This blogger felt that the food stamps were a benefit given to the woman because of her own income. In the blogger’s mind, the woman had a right to the food stamps as long as her income was only $15,000 annually. The concept of a family living on a family income was apparently unknown to this blogger. In the blogger’s mind, the government stole the food stamp benefit from that woman when she married.
Normal people, people who think for themselves and take care of themselves see the situation quite differently. They see that the woman’s family increased its income dramatically when the woman married the man. Normal people see immediately that the food stamp benefit is not needed any longer when the man’s income becomes part of the family income. Ending the food stamp benefit for this woman is not taking anything away from her; it is an acknowledgment that she no longer needs this benefit. When this benefit is not being paid to her, it can be made available to another woman who just lost her job. When people who do not need food stamps anymore are ruled ineligible, the money they were receiving can be used to help someone else. In other words, the food stamp benefit should be understood by recipients to be temporary—something to help them get by till they can take care of themselves.
Some readers of this post will be outraged at the very idea of telling a food stamp recipient, “Remember. This is a temporary benefit. You need to find a job and start taking care of yourself so we can help other people with temporary problems.” Some readers will even suggest that I hate poor people and children. Some will say that it would be rude to suggest to food stamp recipients, “You need to find a job.” It is not rude. It is a compliment to the dignity of the human spirit to recognize that no human being thrives when he is mooching off other people. Human beings thrive when they accomplish things and do what is hard. Human beings grow strong by doing things they think they cannot do. They achieve a sense of their own worth and dignity by surprising the people around them by their accomplishments. To find a new way to obtain money and/or services from the government does not make people feel good about themselves. People do not have any sense of accomplishment unless they accomplish things. When people do accomplish hard things such as obtaining paid employment, paying off a car or a house, learning a new skill or getting a promotion, they rightly celebrate the fact that they have done great things. When people accomplish things, they stop feeling needy and start feeling valuable.
Think about my aspirin story. When I get a headache and take an aspirin for it, I bring the pain of the headache under control. If I discover that every time the aspirin wears off, the headache returns, I will eventually realize that the aspirin simply masks a symptom of a real problem—endless headache. The best thing I could do is get rid of the headache. I need to find out how to prevent my persistent headache instead of continuing to take medicine to hide the pain.
Government charity—welfare for children, food stamps, subsidized housing, free doctor visits—only hides the fact that someone is not taking care of himself. If a person continues to take charity year after year, that person never accomplishes anything useful, and that person will start to feel worthless. A person who never accomplishes anything, never takes care of himself, never stands on his own two feet will be like the baby crying in the middle of the living room floor. The best thing the culture and the government can do for that person is to guide him or her to learn how to provide for himself.
The US does not need more money for more charity. The US needs to rediscover the spirit that tamed the western frontier. For more than a hundred years after the Revolutionary War, the US had a western frontier where there was little or no support to help people in trouble. People who went west beyond the boundaries of the states that were part of the union had to be prepared to care for themselves under adverse circumstances that make inner-city ghettoes look like heaven. Even if someone had carried food stamps west, there was no place to buy food. People had to catch, kill, or grow their own. Nobody handed out rent subsidies; people had to build their own shelters. Good Will had no stores with cheap clothes; people made their own clothes, and they had to wash and mend them, too, because it wasn’t easy to obtain even the raw materials. When they broke their arms or came down with flu, there was no ER. They were on their own. Some actually died, because the conditions were harsh, yet the reward for succeeding in that hard life was so great that fact that many others from headed west with courage and determination to succeed like those who blazed the first trails.
This is the attitude that needs to become our national mantra. Instead, the mantra seems to be “a phone for everyone, and everyone with a phone.” Our country came into being, because people with courage and perseverance endured hardship and deprivation for high purposes. It is actually the most basic truth about human nature—we love challenges, because we love to beat the challenges. To instill determination, perseverance and endurance into the culture again will not put an end to charity. Human beings love to help others, too. It will simply put charity in the right perspective, temporary assistance that includes guidance and constraints that discourage the feeling of neediness and encourage the determination to be self-sufficient again.
Those big sisters that “helped” the baby by standing him on his feet before he could do it himself loved helping the baby, but they were not doing the best thing for him. He needed his mother’s wise love that allowed him to cry till he started thinking for himself. Our culture needs to learn how to give people the opportunity to think for themselves and do for themselves. It is time to start addressing the problem and stop fooling ourselves by simply hiding the symptoms of needy people. The greatest need of needy people is to learn how to fulfill their needs themselves.
A person ensnared by lifelong charity loses his or her fundamental sense of self-worth, trading it for security. That is what happened to cats and dogs and other animals whose only reason for being today is to be petted. It should be a crime to ensnare God’s precious creation, a human being for whom Christ died, in perpetual neediness.