P&R Miscellany and I have a fundamental disagreement about what to do about the poor. We both agree that citizens can and should work together to alleviate the suffering caused by poverty. We both agree that poverty-alleviation efforts should enhance the autonomy and liberty of the fellow citizens whom we help, not make them weaker and dependent.
However, P&R believes that government anti-poverty efforts strip the dignity of the poor and turn them into Baltimore diaper looters, while private charity ennobles receivers and givers. I believe that government and charity, both human institutions, are equally subject to corruption and error and equally capable of rendering aid and comfort.
P&R cites a Thomas Sowell (gaack! gaaccckkkk!) passage as the core of his opposition to government welfare efforts:
Non-judgmental subsidies of counterproductive lifestyles are treating people as if they were livestock, to be fed and tended by others in a welfare state — and yet expecting them to develop as human beings have developed when facing the challenges of life themselves [Thomas Sowell, “The Inconvenient Truth About Ghetto Communities’ Social Breakdown,” National Review, 2015.05.05].
Non-judgmental subsidies of counter-productive lifestyles… hmm… I believe we are getting to the core of the issue. P&R don’t just disagree on how to help. We may disagree on who deserves help.
The government issues various benefits—Medicaid, food stamps, WIC—based on pretty simple criteria: income, number of children, medical condition. True, we through the government doesn’t ask welfare applicants, “Well, how did you get into this condition? Did you behave counterproductively to end up poor or pregnant or anemic?” We just check the eligibility criteria and say, “You qualify. Here, feed your kids. Get that check-up.” We set some limits, require some work, and we toy with the offensive idea of forcing applicants to pee in a cup, but for the most part, we don’t pry into recipients’ lifestyles. Sowell and P&R are right: we don’t judge much at the welfare office.
But do private charities judge? When your local church hosts a community dinner, do drug-test guests at the door and turn away those who fail? When women come to the church clothing room, do you pull the local harlot aside and say, “You got pregnant outside of a monogamous relationship, so no onesies for your spawn of Satan”? How much judging happens in private charities to distinguish it from public welfare programs? Would such judging make private charity or public welfare better programs? And are private charities any better equipped to judge their fellow citizens than a government operating under a Constitution guaranteeing majority rule and protection of minority rights?
When you find a hungry man, do you read him the riot act, or the Gospels, or do you hand him an apple?
The poor will always be with us (said some pessimistic carpenter), so we will always need a clear idea of the principles that motivate us to help and the proper social tools we can us to render that help. If we can work together to help our neighbors through our churches and the United Way, why can we not also work together through the social contract, through our city councils, state legislatures, and Congress to exercise our humanitarian obligations?