Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Conservative Christian Talks about Welfare

Paul and Percival Goodman, Communitas
So. My lady friend’s father was recently in town.

Yes, yes, I’m as shocked as anyone else about the girlfriend thing (actually, I am MUCH MORE SHOCKED), but the surprises don’t stop there. The woman I’m seeing is a pastor’s kid. A double pastor’s kid: both of her parents are Methodist ministers. Although she had an upbringing in which religion thoroughly permeated her family life, she is now fairly indifferent where dogma and liturgy are concerned. (When asked if she still considers herself a practicing Christian, she says she identifies as "sort of Quaker.")

But her father isn't only a very actively practicing Christian and a pastor, he's a Biblical Christian (a term he prefers to "fundamentalist") -- one of those folks who believe that the Bible is the Literal Word of God; a “teach the controversy” kind of person. As you can imagine, father and daughter disagree on a lot.

But she loves her father. And it’s not just out of sentimentality, nostalgia, or filial obligation: her dad is gentle, affable, funny, and really very erudite. He's a hard guy to dislike. Though his beliefs might be questionable, he can mount an admirably articulate argument on their behalf. This unrelenting reasonableness of his puts an even greater onus on his daughter to evade any conversational paths that seem to be heading towards religion or politics. (It's one thing to argue with a dolt who defends his point by repeating his point; it's another to argue with an accomplished scholar who can capably defend his position from every conceivable siege.)

But it sometimes happens. When it does, both she and her father walk away mutually unpersuaded, and then she has go outside and run something like six or eight miles before the steam generated during the exchange has been satisfactorily vented. (I’ve suggested it would be easier to just smoke six or eight cigarettes, but she will not be convinced by me, either.)

But there’s that damn reasonableness of his. Sometimes she walks away from one of these talks and wonders if the Christian conservative doesn’t have a point.

She tells me that she and her father got to talking about the social safety net during his recent visit. It it his belief that federally-funded welfare programs are unconstitutional and should be done away with.

If you lean liberal, as I (and the lady) do, this one of those propositions that immediately reaches past everything and starts slapping at the buttons on your OUTRAGE console. Your first instinct might be to immediately argue yes of course it’s constitutional are you crazy, and then immediately pull up Wikipedia to teach yourself what you’re certain you already know about the Constitution of the United States of America.

Instead, she found it more constructive to ask: “well, who’s going to take care of the sick and poor, then?”

“The church,” was his answer.

He elaborated after some probing. He objects to federally-subsidized welfare on the conviction that aid to the needy should not come from a distant, thinly-spread government agency. His view is that aid for "orphans and widows" in the community should come from the community itself (ideally, a community propped up and bound together by the church). This scheme imagines that if somebody in the community is ill and can't afford healthcare, the community passes the hat around until there’s enough to cover the hospital bill. If someone’s house down the street is knocked over and trampled during a buffalo stampede, folks up and down the block pitch in and help him rebuild, while the collection plate goes back around. If an old woman in the community has nobody to care for her and too few resources to provide for herself, people from church volunteer to make sure she is cared for and comfortable. Families take care of families; families that can't care for themselves are cared for by the community until they are capable of sustaining themselves.

Your response to this might be something like come on, get real; that’s totally unreasonable and there’s no chance that would work. You’re probably right.

But doesn’t that suck, though?

We’re admitting to living in a society where it is generally acknowledged that people cannot be counted on to care for each other. Not to generalize, but most of us probably don't even really know our neighbors, much less share with them a relationship of mutual responsibility for each other's well-being. Am I off-base for thinking it's a little perverse that a family in need can more reliably expect a helping hand from a government agency than from people on their own street?

I'm not saying I'd be thrilled about an immediate wholesale dismantling of federally-funded welfare programs. There are people who need help, and they might not get it any other way. But it's a system that isn't hard to game and abuse -- and even worse, it's predicated on the idea that it's just enough to toss money at a problem. A check in the mail helps buy food and keep a roof over the head of a man without a job, but it doesn't do much in the way of helping or encouraging him to take proactive action toward getting back on his feet, or giving him the support he might need to stay on his feet.

"Help from the neighbors" might not have the same instant appeal as "money in the mail." But what might aid from the community actually amount to? Say you've just been laid off. Imagine if, instead of only receiving a monthly check, you could count on your neighbors to invite you to share their meals and offer you rides. Imagine if you could expect everyone on your street to keep you in mind, to be on the lookout for for leads on your behalf, or to offer to pay you for any odd jobs that need to be done around their households in the meantime. Imagine if you could count on somebody in the neighborhood to take care of your kids while you go out for job interviews.

One of the presumptions of a welfare check is that a person can't count on such things, and will need money to pay for them.

In middle-class America, we only see this sort of community spirit when a hurricane rips through the town or a bomb goes off. Why should we only feel responsible for each other after a disaster strikes?

Again: I'm not suggesting that the government should have no role whatsoever in providing financial help to those who need it. But I can't help wondering if the sustained dissolution of communitas (I'm apt to place the blame for this on capitalism, but that's another conversation altogether) hasn't created a vacuum that bureaucratic coin-tossing can't reasonably be expected to fill. And I much prefer the minister's vision of a communal safety net of shared responsibility, and I wish our society was one in which such a thing were feasible.


  1. I think there are numerous problems with the government welfare state (which probably wouldn't shock you given my political leanings). I could go to the more Libertarian argument, that the welfare state amounts to legalized theft, but that'll end up stifling a discussion because you'd be unlikely to ever see it that way. So instead I think the question is, even if the welfare state is seen as 'necessary' can it ever truly do what it's 'supposed' to do, which is provide a TEMPORARY cushion for those on hard times (or presumably a more permanent one for those with severe disabilities). I think the answer is that in its current form, the welfare state is unsustainable in the long term and fundamentally broken. Even throwing out those who 'game' the system and assuming that the vast majority on welfare are on there with the 'best of intentions', the system isn't set up to encourage people to get off of it. The current system as run by the government provides money and food, most times without the expectation of any work in return. The fact of the matter is, the longer you go without working, the harder it is to re-enter the workforce (countless studies have shown this with unemployment and unemployment benefits too). Plus, once you do re-enter the workforce, unless you're getting paid fairly well, you're actually making less money because now your benefits are cut and your income is lower. Basically if you're getting our of the system it's because of an internal drive to eliminate dependency, not rational economic benefit, and most people are driven by rational benefits. A system designed to get people out of poverty would be one that spent money upfront on education and/or job training, with a definitive horizon for termination of benefits and one that adapted to people re-entering the workforce (i.e. your benefits only went down exactly as much as you earned so working does nothing to hurt your economic well-being).

    Of course, many politicians are disinterested in actually finding such a solution because demagoguing is so much easier. In virtually every election, whoever your left-leaning politician is can be counted on telling their poor constituency that if elected, the conservative will kick them out on the streets. Meanwhile nothing is said about how to get these same poor people to actually move upward economically. We've been fighting a 'war on poverty' for 50 years with no appreciable gains despite spending literally trillions on the problem. I can think of no other war in which we'd e allowed to fight using the same tactics for five decades without someone at least asking if we should be using different tactics or if the war was even winnable (I seem to remember the bloom being off the rose of the Iraq War within maybe six months, by comparison). Unfortunately, any talk of changing the welfare state today will be met with cries of cold-heartedness, so I fear we'll stay the course until things get so bad that we literally have no other choice. At our current spending levels I'd give it about one to two decades at most before 'stay the course' becomes unsustainable, though maybe when states like California and New York go bankrupt it will be a wake-up call.

    1. A system designed to get people out of poverty would be one that spent money upfront on education and/or job training, with a definitive horizon for termination of benefits and one that adapted to people re-entering the workforce (i.e. your benefits only went down exactly as much as you earned so working does nothing to hurt your economic well-being).

      I think we've just agreed on something. Should we hug?

    2. Sure, lets hug it out before we get back to disagreeing on almost everything. ;)

  2. I'm currently disabled and on EBT, and it SUCKS. I'm in a weird position where if I claim disability, it's going to affect the chances of me getting back into the workforce, because somebody collecting disability benefits at my age, then trying to get back in the saddle has a goofy stigma behind it. Future employers see that as a weird black mark of sorts. Meanwhile, while I'm laid up, I'd love to go back to school, but in order to get a Pell grant, I'd have to forgo the EBT, which I can't do because I'm outta work, which I can't do because I'm laid up.

    There is very, very, VERY little reason for me to get motivated to get back on my feet and get back to doing something constructive aside from my sheer bullheadedness and desire to work my ass off for a living. So yeah, the system sucks, and because there's plenty of people out there taking the system for a ride, it makes people like me out to be some crazy kinda outlier, and I hate it.

    Your suegro is pretty dead-on, though. Ideally, the village raises the child, so the kid doesn't wind up razing the village. This kinda nonsense wouldn't fly in a really tight community.

    So yeah. Screw welfare, even though it's kinda been nice to have for a bit, and God's a pretty cool dude, even if he does make weird creatures and things.

    1. What happened? Were you injured?

      (God's alright, if you're into that sort of things. I've lived and worked at a religious community for almost two years and I'm still an atheist.)

    2. Hahah, yeah. Could have been worse, one hell of a lot worse, for sure, and if that doesn't justify the potential for some invisible hand guiding this nonsense, well, I dunno, man. Hahahah.

      Church is cool. I've been going more frequently over the years, not really outta obligation, as I'm still REALLY on the fence about the whole thing (all things, now that I think about it), but the best churches tend to be not the huge megachurches with the Frank Lloyd Wright architecture or the giant statues depicting all 151 original saints (Gotta Catch 'em All!), but the ones that are, surprise surprise, communal and very much a part of the community. Not "Hey, accept Christ as your lord and savior and give us a smidgen of your income for God knows what," but "Hey, kids, life is kinda hard, and here's why, and oh, if you could, throw down a couple of bucks because there's like a hundred of us here and we really gotta get AC up in this place."

      People in Western society (hell, prolly "developed" society in general) are programmed to be fearful of each other, and as such often wind up being right bastards. It's too bad, because when we do band together, awesome, beautiful things wind up happening. I totally dig girlyfriend's stance on the matter, but also agree with you that it's gonna take an awful lot to get that going again.

  3. The idea of the local church or the community caring for those in need is predicated on a couple assumptions:

    1) That only a select few will need help. The examples given in these kinds of debates tend to be isolated, temporary problems. An injury, unemployment, the threat of foreclosure. Problems that have a specific cause (lack of money) but with a clear solution (find a new/better job). I don't know of this idea being applied to stories of entire communities losing the factory that supplied at least half the town's jobs or the long-term effects of a natural disaster. Yes, the Oklahoma tornado is getting all the attention (and charity money) right now, but how are the rebuilding efforts for those hit by Hurricane Sandy going? Are those communities, where a significant percentage of the people living in them, able to band together to help everyone?

    2) Let's be honest, this 'the community will help its own' idea can only work if you have a homogeneous group. I don't necessarily mean in terms of race or religion or political affiliation, but you need something more than physical proximity to one another. Maybe a hundred years ago, or even sixty years ago when the suburbs became a thing*, people knew their neighbors and you could maybe expect them to help one another if something bad happened. But even then I'm guessing someone losing their business or suffering a sudden calamity was met more with sympathetic thoughts than actual, physical aid.

    And it can't work today. We do not have communal societies, the convenience of physical proximity does not lead to neighbors becoming best friends, and frankly I'm OK with that. It strikes me as ridiculous that just because you live near someone (or you work with them, or have the same classes as them) that they're supposed to mean something to you, moreso than someone who has your same interests and hobbies and complements your personality.

    We are not limited to living in the same town or city our entire lives anymore, and even if we can't move to where we want to be (dear God, I wish I was back in San Francisco) we have the internet. We can find people we actually like and who will go on to mean something to us. And yes, the internet can provide those who need help with it. In time, possibly moreso than any local church, given the trend of church attendance dropping and the rise of younger people having no religious affiliation.

    *I honestly think this whole "the community will watch out for itself" idea is rooted in the same "things used to be better when I was growing up" bullshit that people who came of age post-World War II buy into, it almost entirely being a product of what they saw on television and have come to believe was how things were when they were kids.

    Almost wish I hadn't deleted my blog now, because I had a post on this very subject.

    1. 1.) Well, yeah. That's why I'd never advocate a dismantling of federally-funded relief programs.

      2.) Perhaps I do idealize community, but it's not because of misplaced nostalgia. I've lived at a Quaker community for almost two years; my contract ends in September. I'm definitely going to be looking for intentional communities in the Philadelphia area to which I can relocate. I've also had long conversations with friends and acquaintances (several whom I've met here) who have spent time in the Peace Corps and did NGO work in Benin, Angola, Cambodia, and Laos. I consistently hear that "village" life can be frustrating, but it's ultimately more satisfying than the the lifestyles they return home to.

      I agree with you that any social schemes predicated on community life wouldn't work today because there ISN'T really any community life -- and that's what I'm lamenting. We don't live in a communal society, and I think it's to our detriment. If nothing else, living in community is more economical, more environmentally friendly, and in many ways more convenient than how we're doing things now. (A household of six will consume fewer resources than three households of two.)

      I don't think we should have our associations distantly narrowcast to us, either. It's by brushing up against and learning to work alongside people different from us that we're made to grow. And even though the Internet is effectively shrinking the world, it doesn't mean that we no longer require meaningful relationships with the people in our immediate proximity. I don't doubt that there are many, many people who have thousands of Facebook friends and Twitter followers who are still lonely as hell.

      I admit that circumstances on the ground are such that an Internet community is the best many of us can do. But I think a network of correspondence is better as a supplement to engagement in a local community, not a substitute.

    2. I realize now what you probably had in mind was a suburban neighborhood where people wave each other over their fences and drive each other's kids to school, and I was clearly envisioning a group of families sharing meals, resources, etc. If any of my pinko sensibilities were still in the bag, I guess they're out now, huh.

  4. The problem with church-funded charity, at least to me, is that right off the bat there's a middleman. We should be able to be charitable out of the goodness of our heart, not because our chosen deity is holding a theocratical gun to our head telling us that this is the way to get into paradise. But the problem with that of course is that the human condition seems to me to be inherently evil. There was a time when, like Mr. Branch up there, i considered myself to be 'Libertarian' and I still fully believe that one should be able to do as they please without government interference, assuming it doesn't infringe on the rights of others. However I strongly believe that government must exist, and it should exist to be a secular protection for the poor, because if there's one thing that has been proven since the beginning of history, it's that those with power will dominate those without until they are dead in the gutters if allowed to. How Libertarians can still say what they do with a straight face after the bank meltdown a few years ago is beyond me, if there was any indication of man's inhumanity to man in the recent past, that was it.

    Not that I feel Communism is much better, mind you. The problem with both Marxist and Randian utopias is that they assume that everyone will work together for a common goal, which is the biggest fairy tale I can imagine. Federalism is far from perfect, but at least it assumes right off the bat that it exists because people will screw each other at the slightest opportunity.

    Or maybe I've just been reading too much Watchmen...