So . . . federal and state governments have spent over 1 trillion of your dollars on means-tested welfare programs in the past year. That number does not include Social Security or Medicare, just so you know. You might wonder what such a jaw-dropping amount of money might buy. I thought you might, because I was wondering too.
Well, apparently, it doesn’t buy much at all. According to the Congressional Research Service, $1 trillion is enough to eliminate poverty in the entire United States. But that doesn’t even begin to capture the relationship between poverty and welfare spending. That $1 trillion is enough to wipe out poverty in our country five times over (thanks, Heritage Foundation). A little like using a fire-hose to douse a match, don’t you think?
Yet still the match burns. The poverty rate in America sits at about 15% today. And that percentage has been on the rise even as the amount we spend on poverty elimination has increased. Hmm. Shouldn’t there be an inverse relationship between poverty and anti-poverty spending?
If people were simply bank accounts whose balances needed replenishing, the answer would be “yes.” They’re not, of course. A 15% poverty rate translates to about 46.2 million people who are officially poor. Which means there are approximately 46.2 million reasons for the nation’s poverty rate. Poverty is not a group problem, it is an individual problem. Any serious treatment of the issue needs to account for this.
Unfortunately, the government’s approach to poverty has been to treat it as a one-dimensional group phenomenon. People really are little more than overdrawn bank accounts. I’m not faulting the good intentions of our legislatures or the bureaucrats who carry out their policies. I am, however, noting that government is a blunt instrument that is institutionally incapable of the personalized treatment the intractable problem of poverty requires.
More to the point, I’m suggesting that the fact of government involvement is partly responsible for the problem’s intractability. In trying to translate Americans’ admirable compassion into legislative programs, we didn’t account for the human dimension. We forgot that compassion and compulsion are mutually exclusive. It turns out, in fact, that compulsion kills compassion. What we meant for good actually bred envy, resentment, and pride. How could a noble sentiment like compassion turn into such a poisonous brew?
If we look at the human dimension of welfare programs, I think we’ll find the answer. Let’s start with a simplified mental diagram of how welfare programs work. Each program consists of a relationship between these three groups: (1) The state, (2) the program recipients, and (3) the people from whom the resources come to fund the program – otherwise known as taxpayers. Think of it as a triangle with the state at the apex, the recipient on the lower left, and the taxpayer on the lower right.
Here’s a basic lifecycle of the typical welfare program. Legislators identify some measure of poverty in need of amelioration, and under the banner of compassion they adopt a new welfare program. The state then compels the taxpayers to fund the new program. The state takes its cut of the compelled revenue, and passes along what’s left to the undifferentiated group who qualify for the program.
Now let’s see how that transaction affects each of the participants. We’ll begin with the beneficiaries. Welfare recipients have a “right” to their benefits. If they meet statutory standards, benefits follow automatically. Recipients can even sue for them if improperly denied. No surprise, then, that a large segment of welfare recipients expect to be supported by the government as a matter of right. And if they are entitled to support, it follows that it ought to be enough to satisfy their needs. However much they receive, though, it’s never enough because the “rich” always have so much more and, doggone it, the disparity between me and thee just shouldn’t be that great. This is how we breed envy: Teach people they have a right to what belongs to others. So the beneficiaries descend to reliance on the state, and envy of their fellow man.
The transaction harms the providers too. People work hard for their income, and the vast majority must carefully budget their resources, scrimp for the essentials, do without some things so they can afford others with a higher priority. Notwithstanding Americans’ legendary generosity, they do not appreciate being compelled to give up their hard-won income to someone else. Especially when that someone is telling them that they have too much as it is, and that they must be made to pay their “fair share,” or that we should “spread their wealth around.” This is how we breed resentment: Take from those who create and give it to people who don’t. Consequently, the providers resent both the state and their fellow man.
And finally there is the state. Politicians are lauded or lambasted in large part based on their “compassion.” The compassion, of course, is measured by how much money they transfer from one group to another. It’s strange, when you think about it, how they congratulate themselves for giving something that was not theirs to people to whom it does not belong. But that is how we breed pride. Politicians begin to believe they are morally superior to the providers, and paternalistically superior to the beneficiaries.
This is the folly of forced “compassion.” Compassion cannot coexist with compulsion; it is a love response, and love cannot be compelled. The Good Book has something to say about this: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” I Cor. 13:4-7. Is there anything there compatible with compelled wealth transfers? I didn’t think so either.
If God is love, and compassion a loving response, maybe God belongs at the apex of the triangle instead of the state – if we’re looking to be compassionate, of course. Sitting right behind the commandment to love God with all your heart there is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Mark 12:31. What if we did?
To start with, a welfare recipient would no longer be a welfare recipient. He would be an individual and the object of someone’s love. He would receive gifts, not entitlements. People respond to those differently. Understanding that someone has willingly sacrificed some of his hard-won income, with no obligation to do so, he will respond with gratitude, not envy. He gives thanks . . . he doesn’t complain he has not received more. And because he sees that the giver has provided for him not out of overwhelming abundance, but out of limited resources, he will be more likely to do whatever it takes to get out of poverty.
The transformation reaches the giver as well. Where once there was resentment, there is now . . . what? The compelled taxpayer is now the voluntary giver. He recognizes his shared humanity with the one in need and, grateful for his own resources, reaches out to alleviate his fellow man’s suffering. Why, that’s compassion that has taken resentment’s place. This is the real thing, a love response born of self-sacrifice, not a grudging response compelled by others.
There is still the matter of the triangle’s apex. Denied their pretensions to compassion, politicians would have to find some other basis for self-congratulation. In their place, God would receive the well-deserved love of his creation – both from the poor, who are grateful He has prospered others enough to help them in their need, and from the givers who get to experience the joy that comes with giving.
There may be other justifications for forcing one person to give what he has created to someone who has not earned it, but please let’s not pretend it’s compassion. If we really care about our fellow man, we ought at the very least take a hard, critical look at the damage our faux compassion is causing. What have we bought with that $1 trillion? Not the end of poverty, certainly. But we’ve got more envy, resentment, and unwarranted pride than we could ever need.