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.