Category Archives: issues

Does Welfare Hurt the Poor?


“I ask you, what am I? I’m one of the undeserving poor: that’s what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that he’s up agen middle class morality all the time. . . . I don’t need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don’t eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more.” —Alfred P. Doolittle, My Fair Lady

I received many positive responses to my last blog post. But one was negative. A dear old friend tried to set me straight. She stated categorically: “Welfare done by the government promotes dependency. A hand up not hand out.”

I replied with a single sentence: “How do you give a hand up to one who has no arms?”

The Bible-laden response I got was as heartless as it was racist. (My friend is white.) Welfare is destroying the black community. Blacks were poorer but better off before welfare. Blah, blah, blah. Even though she threw the word “love” into her email for good measure, I wasn’t feeling it. Sometimes tough love isn’t love. It’s just tough. My friend’s anti-government-welfare rant repeated the myth that social welfare promotes dependency, popularized by the racist stereotype of the Welfare Queen.

Welfare Queen Cartoon.jpg

The myth that social welfare causes dependency has been repeatedly debunked, as it was in this excellent Washington Post article (please read it before you respond):

The Myth of Welfare’s Corrupting Influence on the Poor

According to the former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, cutting social welfare is not only bad for the poor; it’s bad for the economy:

Why Hurting the Poor Will Hurt the Economy

It’s easy to criticize the poor if you have a roof over your head, food on the table, and money in the bank. But what if the shoe were on other foot? Or what if you had no shoes at all?



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My Brother’s Keeper?

mother with food stamp groceries

CNN Photo. A mother unloads groceries purchased with food stamps in 2013.

I got angry at a colleague last Saturday. I got angry simply because he expressed his opinions—opinions shared by many Americans. He said the poor would be better off if we did away with all social welfare programs. No Medicaid. No Section 8 housing. No food stamps. No welfare of any kind. The position is more extreme than Mitt Romney’s 47 percent comment or Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake.” It was so extreme, in fact, I should have laughed it off. I couldn’t, because a lack of empathy for the poor is no laughing matter.

My colleague went on to explain that anyone could get out of poverty simply by making right choices. He cited a 2013 Brookings Institution report that claims the surest way out of poverty and into the middle class is by doing three things: (1) finish high school, (2) get a full-time job, (3) wait until age 21 to get married and have children.  According to the report, “Of American adults who followed these three simple rules, only about 2 percent are in poverty and nearly 75 percent have joined the middle class (defined as earning $55,000 or more per year).” I agree with the report, which does not advocate getting rid of all social welfare. It says clearly, “In addition to the thousands of local and national programs that aim to help young people avoid these life-altering problems, we should figure out more ways to convince young people that their decisions will greatly influence whether they avoid poverty and enter the middle class.” Thus, the report is more nuanced than what I heard my colleague say. It’s not a matter of either-or. It’s both-and. We can empower the victims of poverty without blaming them or taking away their benefits.

My colleague seemed unaware of the difficulty of making good lifestyle choices when one is growing up in neighborhoods with high crime rates, rampant drug use, corrupt leaders, and failing schools. Family dysfunction adds to the physical and psychological effects of poverty that make it harder for adolescents to decide to stay in school, secure full-time employment, and avoid teenage pregnancy, as the Brookings report rightly recommends.

What would happen to children growing up in poverty, especially those who aren’t at the point of making lifestyle choices recommended in the report, if we were to take away their housing, health care, food, and other basic needs? They would sink deeper into poverty, making it even harder for them to make good choices that could help them out of poverty.

Turn the Brookings report on its head. If you make bad lifestyle choices by the time you are an adult, you will likely stay in poverty and not make it into the middle class. What is our moral obligation as a society to these people? Do we blame them for their lifestyle choices and walk away? Many who drop out of school, can’t get a job, and get pregnant out of wedlock at a young age, were victims of abuse and neglect.

Consider the all-too-real case of the fictitious character Claireece Precious Jones in the 1996 novel Push (later made into the movie Precious). The main character is an obese and illiterate 16-year-old girl living in Harlem with an abusive mother. She is pregnant with her second child. Both children are the result of her being raped by her father. Clearly the likelihood of a girl like this getting out of poverty is very low, but her circumstances aren’t simply a factor of her bad choices. She is the victim of her poverty, not its cause. Doesn’t society have a moral obligation to help people like this rather than simply writing them off or blaming them for their poverty?

What would happen if we took away all social welfare programs as my colleague suggests? Poor people would not all immediately pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become successful. The widening gap between the rich and poor would become a chasm of Grand Canyon proportions. The US currently ranks 40 out of 150 on the CIA’s list of countries by income inequality, meaning we have high income inequality: the top third. (Lower numbers have higher income inequality; higher numbers have less.) We don’t have to speculate what our country would become without social welfare programs. Counties that spend the least on social welfare tend to be the poorest in the world. Countries with the highest spending on social welfare also tend to be the most prosperous in the world (the US ranks 21 on this list, after Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic). Without social welfare the United States would go backward, not forward.

If we took away all social welfare programs, the elderly poor would perhaps suffer the most. According to AARP, “about 65 percent of nursing home residents are supported primarily by Medicaid.” That’s almost a million of our American grandmas and grandpas who depend on Medicaid for lifesaving care. (Not to be confused with Medicare for seniors and the disabled, Medicaid provides healthcare for the poor.) In 1965, the year Medicare and Medicaid were established, life expectancy in the US was a biblical “three score and ten” or 70 years. Now it is 79 years primarily because of advancements in the quality and availability of health care.  Without government-funded healthcare, life expectancy would decline along with overall public health.

In his 1971 book A Theory of Justice, the late philosopher John Rawls suggested that a robust social welfare system was the only way to make unequal societies fair. He used a thought experiment called the “veil of ignorance” to make his point. Imagine you didn’t know whether you would be born black or white, rich or poor, healthy or handicapped, what kind of a society would you want to be born into? What would you deem most fair? Rawls suggested that most people would want to insure against the risk of being born disadvantaged; therefore, they would want to be born in a country with a healthy social safety net. It’s only the people who don’t need it and can’t empathize with those who do that rail against it.

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Scared to Death


I’m scared to death of dying. Not because I’m uncertain of where my soul will go but because I’m concerned about what will happen to my body. Funerals can be impersonal, expensive, and hard on the environment. With the professionalization of the funeral industry in America loved ones and churches have been largely removed from the preparation of the body and its burial.

Funeral homes are staffed by good people but aren’t charities. They’re in the business of making money. The national average for a full-service funeral is $7,000 – $10,000. Cremation lowers the cost to $2,000 – $4,000. For those who have the money and desire, a full-service funeral can show the family’s love and respect for the one who has died. But funerals don’t have to be expensive to be respectful and meaningful.

It seems crass to shop around for a deal on a funeral as if you were buying a car but it’s perfectly acceptable. Some areas of the country have funeral co-ops that will do the bargaining for you.  Members pay a small one-time fee to join a funeral co-op. At the time when the services are needed the co-op negotiates a discount with funeral homes. Typical savings range from several hundred to over a thousand dollars. Another approach has been nonprofit funeral homes, which keep costs down by removing the profit motive. For areas without a co-op or nonprofit there’s the Funeral Consumers Alliance (, “a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting a consumer’s right to choose a meaningful, dignified, affordable funeral.” A quick perusal of their website led me to a helpful article titled, “What to Do When You Can’t Afford a Funeral.”

Another concern about full-service funerals is their impact on the environment. First, there’s the toxic embalming fluid pumped into bodies that poses a threat to the environment. (Embalming became popular in America after the Civil War when it was used to preserve the war dead until they could be shipped home, but it’s rarely practiced in Europe.) Second, each year millions of pounds of metal, wood, and concrete are made into caskets and vaults and put in the ground to shield bodies from their surroundings (ashes to ashes and dust to dust?). The caskets and vaults must be manufactured and transported, adding to the environmental impact. Finally, cemeteries must be mowed, watered, and sprayed with insecticides indefinitely. All of this adds up to a huge impact on the environment, since almost 2.5 million people die each year in the US alone. Natural burials or “green burials” have a low impact on the environment. Typically, the body is wrapped in a shroud or placed in a biodegradable coffin and buried in “natural cemetery” without a manicured lawn, often in a peaceful, wooded area.

My final concern about the funeral industry is the way it separates the dead from their loved ones and religious communities. When a person dies, the body is whisked away almost immediately and prepared for burial apart from the family by professionals. The entire process, except the religious service itself, is handled by funeral directors and their staffs. For centuries families prepared the bodies and churches buried them without the assistance of a funeral home. Thank you very much.

Home funerals, which were common until the mid-20th century, allow families to care for a loved one’s body without using the services of a funeral home. Home funerals are legal in all but eight states. Burials on private property outside a cemetery are also permissible but check with the county or town clerk and the health department to understand the applicable laws.

Joseph of Arimathea lovingly prepared Jesus’s body for burial and laid it in a tomb (Mark 15:42-46). We can follow his example by caring for our loved ones’ bodies after death. How we do so is a personal decision. My goal here has not been to tell anyone what to do but only to give some options to consider.

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Hungry For Change


Woman picks through food waste in Kampala, Uganda

October is World Hunger Month. It’s an important time to remember how daunting the problem of hunger is. One billion people in the world are hungry, and over 46 million Americans are “food insecure,” meaning they skip meals or cannot afford to eat healthy. That’s surprising since 1.3 billion tons of food are thrown away annually. That’s enough to feed all the hungry people in the world. There’s no shortage of food. There’s an abundance of poverty. Those with enough money eat well whether they live in Washington DC or Timbuktu. There’s also an abundance of greed, corruption, and infrastructure challenges that contribute to the problem of food insecurity.

While I was in Africa I saw up close the devastating effects of a broken global food system. I remember watching a woman picking through a pile of food waste in Uganda and children begging on the streets in war-ravaged Somalia. The hunger problem in America is less obvious. Poor families rely on cheap, unhealthy processed food to get enough calories, which has led to an obesity epidemic. We usually think of skinny, emaciated people as hungry. Overweight people may not be hungry, technically speaking, but obesity is often due to a lack of affordable, healthy food.

Giving food to the hungry is a stop-gap that treats the symptom, not the root problem. What would it look like if we got serious about trying to end hunger and poverty, not just put a Band-Aid on the problem? I’m not sure, but it should start with building relationships with the poor, not just giving them food or money (though sometimes that’s what they need most to help them through a crisis). Using our God-given time, talents, and resources, we could empower those in need to work toward getting out of poverty themselves and helping others to do the same. A hand up rather than a hand out. What’s needed is an approach that captures the spirit of the following quote by Lao Tzu:

Go to the people:

live with them,

learn from them

love them

start with what they know

build with what they have.


But of the best leaders,

when the job is done,

the task accomplished,

the people will say:

“We have done it ourselves.”

What would that look like in the context of relief for the poor? Scholarships to help pay for education and job training. Microfinance programs to start small businesses. Childcare co-ops for single mothers. Ride sharing. Community gardens. The possibilities are endless.

Sometimes the challenges seem so overwhelming that paralysis sets in. We don’t know where to begin, so we don’t. But the problems of poverty and hunger won’t solve themselves. We need to take action. We need to begin. To quote Lao Tzu again, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So let’s get moving.

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No Strings Attached


I’m considering entering a no-strings-attached relationship with strangers. I’m not talking about sexual promiscuity. I’m talking about charity. For all of my adult life I’ve had a rule against giving money directly to the poor, because I feared they would use it buy drugs, alcohol, or other unhealthy things. I’d rather give to my church or an established charity such as the local food pantry, which hands out groceries, not cash. However, over the years I’ve become frustrated by the amount of money most charities spend on infrastructure, staff salaries, and even investments and cash reserves. Because of overhead costs only a portion of what one gives goes directly to the poor. I’m also realizing that it’s arrogant, judgmental, and paternalistic of me to assume that the poor would squander the money, and therefore, I must create safeguards to prevent my donations from being misused.  

Recently I read about an innovative charity called GiveDirectly. It’s the first charity dedicated exclusively to cash transfers. They identify people in extreme poverty in the African countries of Kenya and Uganda, then transfer money to them via mobile phone. Crazy, huh? Maybe not.

This radical method of charitable giving not only preserves the dignity of the recipient, but there’s also good evidence that it’s working. According to a January 2014 article published by The Independent, “An evaluation by Innovations for Poverty Action found that a group of the charity’s recipients in Kenya – who received about $500 over up to 12 months – increased their asset holdings by almost 60 per cent, compared with those without. Recipients saw a 42 per cent reduction in the number of days their children went without food and lower stress levels, among other things.” In this case a handout is actually a hand up.

Some may object to cash transfers on the grounds that they discourage individual initiative and encourage laziness. However, given in the right amounts and over a limited period of time they do neither. The money simply raises recipients above starvation levels of poverty, so they can begin to focus on more than getting enough calories to eat.  

Unconditional cash transfers aren’t a panacea for the poor. People also need health, safety, education, justice, and economic opportunity to break the cycle of extreme poverty. But it’s one tool that seems to be helping raise the standard of living for some very disadvantaged people in Africa.

The idea also makes me think that with a little creativity and courage we could accomplish the goals of our local charities in the US more efficiently and effectively. Traditional brick-and-mortar approaches are expensive and labor intensive. We need creative solutions using available, lower-cost means. For example, instead of staffing and operating food pantries, we could give grocery store gift cards to those who need food. Rather than maintaining soup kitchens we might provide restaurant gift certificates to the hungry. We could pay rent to provide housing for the homeless rather than spending wads of money building and staffing shelters. Following the GiveDirectly model, we could even use cash transfers to get money to the needy quickly and inexpensively. What would lose? In a word, control.

One reason we hang onto labor-intensive and expensive-to-run models is that we want to control the means of our charity and feel good about ourselves in the process. Handing a bag of groceries to a poor person brings a sense of satisfaction while giving us power over the recipient of our generosity. I remember volunteering at a faith-based food pantry where patrons were subjected to a DMV-like waiting room experience, then when their number was finally called, they were required to listen to an evangelistic appeal before they could receive their food. Families in homeless shelters often live under rules we wouldn’t put up with. Unconditional giving might make us uncomfortable, but it restores the dignity and freedom of those we’re seeking to help.

The idea of giving with no strings attached sounds radical, I know. But it’s not nearly as radical as what Jesus said to the rich man: “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”

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I’m a Coward

cowardly lion

The Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz (1939)

I have a secret desire to be a great writer one day, or at least a very good one. I doubt I will be either. Not because I lack the intellect or talent, which may be true, but because I lack courage. At its best, writing – even fiction writing – is a form of truth telling. Camus famously remarked, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” That’s why novels and fictionalized autobiographies can be more true to life than their non-fiction counterparts. (The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski and Elie Wiesel’s Night come to mind.) Telling the truth requires courage. I’m a coward by nature, at least when it comes to going on the record.

My two favorite clergy autobiographies are St. Augustine’s Confessions and Will Campbell’s Brother to a Dragonfly. I count their authors among my heroes, not only because of what they did for God and humanity but also for their courage to expose their ugly, sinful sides. They were brave men who didn’t hide behind their words. Paul Tillich said, “The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself, in spite of being unacceptable.” If Tillich was right, then self-knowledge and self-acceptance are keys to developing the courage I need to be a better writer.

Even when the topic isn’t autobiographical, good writing requires brutal honesty about the world around us. Honesty forces authors to take up themes and discuss topics that aren’t always welcome in polite society, even less in church circles. The gritty details of life make stories more believable, more real. We don’t live in a G-rated world. When authors write as if we did, the result is an artificial, watered-down version of the real thing, like the difference between fresh-squeezed orange juice and the stuff from a can.

Having something to say is more important than saying it well. That’s why there’s always work for ghost writers. For me the problem isn’t lacking something to say but lacking the courage to say it. The kind of transparency and openness that’s prerequisite for good writing makes my palms sweat and my stomach churn.

I’m not ready to bare my soul on paper, but I am willing to take the first step and begin as anyone in recovery begins, by admitting I have a problem:

Hi, my name is Travis, and I’m a coward.

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Why We Still Need the Liberal Arts


Philosophia et septem artes (12th century)

Yesterday a colleague of mine made the statement that he thought the government shouldn’t fund the liberal arts. That is, public fund shouldn’t be used to subsidize the humanities at colleges and universities, only practical “STEM” majors in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. His argument was twofold: (1) the humanities don’t pay for themselves, and (2) they don’t add enough value to society. I mean, what good is a literature degree compared to engineering? At least an engineer can build stuff. What’s a literature major gonna do, write a haiku? Someone with a history degree might get a job teaching history but how long would it take to pay back $80K in student loans? A lifetime? I fumbled my response. This blog post is an attempt to redeem myself, and, if nothing else, provide a morale boost to my fellow liberal arts degree holders.

Off the bat I must concede that the cost of college education is out of control in the United States no matter what one chooses to study. The ridiculous cost of a university education in America is a problem that won’t be solved by excluding the liberal arts from public funding.

An easy way to answer the cost-benefit objection liberal arts degrees is to say that money isn’t the measure of all things. Earnings potential shouldn’t be the only or even the primary yardstick by which to measure an education. Teaching, public service, and a host of altruistic endeavors would be automatically eliminated as viable career choices, if money were seen as the greatest good. Even those with marketable degrees such as computer science or math would have to steer clear of lower-paying but highly rewarding jobs to justify the cost of their degrees. Yet intuitively we know that there is great value added in having teachers, public servants, and others who earn far less than they could in profit-oriented careers.

The original purpose of higher education wasn’t to train worker bees but to produce better citizens and even better human beings. The term “liberal arts” has nothing to do with political liberalism. The term derives from the Latin artes liberales, meaning “skills fit for a free man.” The focus of an education for the children of the wealthy in the Greco-Roman world was to train them for careers in public service, not for building a better chariot wheel. Slaves received such practical training, not those who were being groomed to serve in the Roman Senate or a king’s court. Liberal arts education is still needed today. Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” A liberal arts education teaches wisdom; technical training does not.

No one would question the contributions to civilization made by scientists and inventors. Neither should anyone question the contributions of poets, philosophers, musicians, and painters. Even though college graduates with STEM majors typically earn more than humanities majors, this fact shouldn’t be seen as a measure of their intrinsic worth or value to society. An engineer may be trained how to build a nuclear bomb, but unless he has had some education in the humanities he won’t be equipped to decide whether it should be dropped on a city.

The reason I value my history degree isn’t because of how much money I am able to earn as a historian, which isn’t much. I value my history degree because it taught me critical reading, thinking, and communication skills. Those skills are useful in a variety of pursuits outside the field. I also value my history degree because it helped me see the world through another’s eyes. In other words history developed in me the virtue of empathy and made me a better person as a result. It’s difficult to put a price tag on that.

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