Among those on the right, there is a great hue and cry to end government sponsored social programs and turn all such work over to churches, non-profit organizations and private citizens. In a country where 1% of the population holds between 35% and 40% of the wealth, this sounds like a remark attributed to Marie Antoinette about the poor prior to the French Revolution: “Let them eat cake”. Couple that with the Republican refusal to even consider raising the tax rates for the wealthy (while those rates are the lowest they’ve been in years), comparing the situation in the United States of today to that of France in 1789 gains more credibility. But, that’s not what I’m on about today. I want to take a look at the idea that social programs can be better run by private organizations than the government.
First of all, let’s examine the history of welfare and social programs in the United States. I think it’s a common misconception that these programs started in the 1930’s with Roosevelt’s New Deal or, even later in the 60’s, under Johnson’s Great Society. Actually, there have been government-run or sponsored social programs in this country for as long as Europeans have been here. During colonial times, British Poor laws provided cash and other types of assistance for those who were unable to work and public service employment for those who could. The 1800’s saw the provision of pensions for Civil War veterans and the beginning of social work. Churches, neighbors and families worked to fill the gaps that were left by these government programs and the poor squeaked by. But, there were plenty of people falling through the cracks. Events like the Great Depression only made things worse. Churches and privately run assistance groups couldn’t keep up.
Friends, the last sentence in the previous paragraph is the key to this whole issue. If the churches, non-profits and private citizens that our Republican brothers and sisters believe should be handling this problem had been able to handle it in the past, there wouldn’t be any government social programs. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that these groups are useless or shouldn’t be involved in social issues. If you read this blog on any kind of regular basis, you know that I’m a huge proponent of the church’s work for social and economic justice. What I am saying is that the problem is too big to be handled solely by non-government entities. In fact, the short history lesson above shows that it’s never been handled that way. While the current system isn’t perfect, but it’s better than nothing.
As it stands now, government programs like SNAP (food stamps), WIC, AFDC, Section 8 and the Affordable Healthcare Act cover the basics of survival. The government also provides programs that help people in returning to work and getting off the public dole. The churches, non-profits and private citizens (that’s us, you know) give people the one thing the government is unable to provide: relationship. I cannot imagine how soul-crushing living off the largesse of the government is, especially when all too many representatives of that government constantly refer to you as a deadbeat, lazy, worthless, etc. Those of us who aren’t in such dire straits can, and should, work to counter such messages. We can do that by taking a little time and getting to know some of these “deadbeat, lazy, worthless” folks by sitting down and talking to them; by listening to their stories; by treating them as human beings. Not just beecause that’s what Jesus did, but because it’s the right thing to do.