Tag Archives: poverty

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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Dying to Live for Others

Little Sisters

Today I visited a home for the impoverished elderly in DC run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. This trip, like a previous one to their home in Richmond, was the result of a promise I made last year to a spunky Irish nun named Sister Helen Creed, when I visited her order’s Nyumba Ya Wazee (Home for the Elderly) in Nairobi, Kenya.

While the humble facility in Africa can’t compare to the ones in our wealthy nation, the love for the elderly poor in both places is the same. What impressed me most today was watching three sisters caring for a woman who was dying, talking to her, stroking her, encouraging her to eat. The nun who led my tour of the facility explained that someone stays with the dying person around the clock “until they go to God.” I thought, “What secular nursing home would do that?”

When we care for the least privileged in society, we are caring for Jesus. That’s what the Lord explained in Matthew 25:31-46. Jeanne Jugan, founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor, put it like this: “Be kind, especially with the infirm. Love them well. . . . Oh yes! Be kind. It is a great grace God is giving you. In serving the aged, it is he himself whom you are serving.” The nuns I met in Nairobi, Richmond, and DC not only minister to the poor, they are themselves poor. They’ve chosen a life of voluntarily poverty in order to preach the Gospel, not in words but in deeds. They die to self in order to live for others. If you were to ask me where I’ve seen God lately, I’d answer in the Little Sisters of the Poor and the people they care for.

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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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Finding Beauty


Benjamin West (1738-1820), The Ascension (1801), oil on canvas, Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, Tenn.

On Friday I returned from a ten-day trip to Millington, Tennessee where I was doing special work for the US Navy. Last Saturday I ventured out in a cold rain and drove to nearby Memphis to visit the Dixon Gallery of Art. I passed through some pretty slummy areas of the city to get there. My first impression of the Home of the Blues was mostly negative until I arrived at the Dixon. This small but impressive museum was founded by the English-born cotton magnate and fine arts patron Hugo Dixon, who made a large fortune in the cotton business.

French impressionist paintings by Monet, Degas, Renoir, and Bonnard form the core of the permanent collection. There are also two Marc Chagall paintings on display and even an abstract expressionist painting by Sir Howard Hodgkin (b. 1932) who literally colored outside of the lines, painting over the frame. But the work that has stuck with me the most since my visit is a stunning painting of the Ascension of Christ by the artist Benjamin West (above).

Conspicuously absent from the museum collection is any depiction of the laborers upon whose backs Mr. Dixon’s fortune was built. No sharecroppers. No African-Americans. No Americans of any kind for that matter. Dixon ascended to glory on the backs of the poor who have no representation in his art collection. We all compartmentalize our lives and I don’t want to be too harsh on a great philanthropist. For all I know, he may have given millions to help the poor. But a museum brochure mentions only Dixon’s generosity to the fine arts and higher education.

The day after my visit to the Dixon Gallery, I traveled to the Mississippi Delta where cotton is still king, and rural poverty, which was invisible in the art museum, is all too apparent. I went to the tiny town of Shaw (pop. 1,952) where our daughter Natalie took a mission trip during her spring break last year. Shaw’s infrastructure and buildings are literally crumbling. Along the main street stores have collapsed behind their fronts and several empty buildings have fallen prey to arsonists. This once thriving town is now in a state of decay. Most businesses left after whites moved out in the 1970s and 80s. Now there isn’t even a supermarket. The only place to buy food is at the local gas station. Many people are unemployed. Drug and alcohol abuse is rampant. It’s not a pretty picture.

However, even in the depressing surroundings of Shaw I found beauty. There’s beauty in the people who continue to scratch a living from hard circumstances. There’s beauty in the three nuns who run a tutoring center for under-performing children. As I reflect back on my trip, I can’t help thinking about Benjamin West’s image of Christ ascending. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). Even though parts of it look like hell, maybe Shaw is closer to heaven than it appears.

Shaw MS storefronts

Shaw, Mississippi


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Psalter Bread

Bay_Psalm_Book_LoCA copy of the Bay Psalter, a historic Bible and the first book published in what is now the United States, sold this week for a record breaking $14.2 million. It was purchased by businessman David Rubenstein who plans to loan it out to libraries across the country. The sale says something important about our American society today, only I’m not sure what exactly. Our love of firsts? Our obsession with big-ticket items? Our generous philanthropy? Maybe the answer is (d) – all of the above. But I don’t think it means that we value the Word of God highly. I can pick up as many copies as I want from Goodwill for fifty cents each.

The sale of the Bay Psalter got me thinking about my own values. With my enthusiastic approval, the church I serve recently paid a hefty sum to have our 1840s Bible restored while Boston’s Old South Church sold their pricey 1640 Book of Psalms to finance their ministries to the homeless and people with AIDS. Maybe they wouldn’t have gotten rid of one copy if they hadn’t owned two. Perhaps the church saw no other way to fund its programs because it’s fallen on hard financial times. I don’t know. Still, whatever the circumstances, it took courage and compassion to give up a precious relic to care for those who are often considered to have little worth. With this decision, the people of Boston’s OSC showed that their values are different from the world’s. The world says, “Use people and value things.” But our faith teaches us to use things and value people.

Where did the Christians in Boston get such a radical idea? Maybe they read the Bay Psalter where it says, “See ye do defend the poor, also the fatherless: unto the needy justice do, and [to them] that are in distress. The wasted poor and those that are needy deliver ye; and them redeem out of the of the hand of such as wicked be” (Psalm 82:3-4).

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