So, as is my usual practice, I posted a little comment and link about yesterday’s post to my twitter feed, and, as is not usually the case, one of my twitter followers, who herself has far more followers, replied to it, and it started circulating among a more progressive/woke crowd than is usually the case.
Suffice it to say, they were Not Happy.
There were, I’d say, four categories of people replying.
First, those who really did not understand what’s going on here, and seemed to think that people had to work for the government to earn their food stamp benefit, as opposed to being required to be a part of the workforce generally speaking, or do something productive with their time if not.
Second, those who said that people would lose their benefits not because of an unwillingness to work (for pay or otherwise) but because it was too difficult to comply with the documentation requirements. Quite honestly, these issues looked like implementation bugs more than a longstanding issue, let alone a design intended to rip benefits out of people’s hands. But to the extent they exist, yes, they need to be fixed; the general tenor of this category of replies, though, most generously stated and shorn of profanity, was that it isn’t possible to establish a system in which people are required to document their productively-spent time without some people falling through the cracks, so we should simply accept giving benefits to those who don’t even try to work, as an unavoidable consequence that’s a reasonable trade-off for insuring those in need receive help.
Third, those who say that, no matter what, people should be able to have food, and, indeed, have their basic needs met by the government without any preconditions at all. I was told I’m an evil Catholic for saying otherwise.
Fourth, those who just name-called (apparently I’m ugly) and spouted profanity without any useful comments.
It’s also the case that there are those who insist that every poor person is always trying to better themselves, so that they clearly don’t need any push in the form of work requirements, because these are humiliating, difficult to comply with, and a waste of time for the person involved as well as for the government, in terms of administrative costs. I don’t buy that. I agree that the numbers are small — 700,000 Americans stand to be cut off from food stamps if they don’t find/document working (with or without pay) for 20 hours per week, because they are between the ages of 18 – 59, not at school, not responsible for anyone’s care, and don’t have a doctor’s note that they’re incapable of working.
But I mentioned the other day reading a book titled Pressure Cooker, profiling 9 women/mothers and their experiences with food and cooking for their family, especially poor women and the world of food stamp shopping. One of those was a woman who was married to her high school sweetheart, both of whom worked at a fast food restaurant — the classic “working poor.” Even though the book is nominally about cooking, the authors spend a section on an incident in which the mother tries to navigate through waiting for a brother who’s supposed to give her a ride to her mother’s (to do laundry) and then to work; he’s running late and it causes problems. Another woman profiled, however, who also works at a fast food restaurant and has to manage her family’s household needs at the same time, is married to a husband who is unemployed, and appears to have been unemployed for quite some time, and remains unemployed for the duration of the multi-year interviewing period. (Maybe he’s more accurately a “stay-at-home dad” for the couple’s children, but if so, the author’s don’t credit him with that work; he generally is only featured as a worthless extra burden.)
And I don’t think it’s right to shrug off these “undeserving poor” (or maybe the “deserving poor” – I never could quite figure out if the “deserving” referred to “deserving of help” or “deserving of their condition”) for another reason, too: living a life entirely disconnected from the world of work is a problem for the individuals themselves. In the long run, a life without any productive or caregiving activity is simply not a good life, whether the substitutes are playing video games in Mom and Dad’s basement or drinking beer and watching TV on the couch of whoever’s home you’re crashing at for the time being. (Final reminder: the homeless are deemed incapable of work, so that’s another story altogether.)
But what about the broader assertion — not that heartless people are deliberately constructing a system that’s too burdensome for the poor to navigate, but that Jesus says that everyone should be fed, regardless of whether they are willing to do whatever productive work they may be capable of?
Of course, there was no government social welfare system in the first century AD. And the general Biblical admonitions about the poor are about people like widows and orphans, unable to work. Jesus doesn’t call out the Roman Empire for its lack of a Universal Basic Income. Neither he nor the Old Testament prophets condemn those who impose work requirements on their charity. Etc.
And then there’s Paul, in 2nd Thessalonians:
In fact, when we were with you, we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.
Yes, this has been abused. Big time. And a quick google search to turn up commentary is made difficulty by its use by Lenin, for instance. But an answer-er at Quora observes that the Didache, the earliest non-Biblical Christian teaching document, says something similar:
If it is a traveler who arrives, help him all you can. But he must not stay with you more than two days, or, if necessary, three. If he wants to settle with you and is an artisan, he must work for his living. If, however, he has no trade, use your judgment in taking steps for him to live with you as a Christian without being idle. If he refuses to do this, he is trading on Christ. You must be on your guard against such people.
So, no, I don’t think it is un-Christian to say that everyone being helped by society (=the government) has a responsibility, to the extent that person is able, to make some productive contribution to the world, rather than having a right to have their basic material needs met without any effort on their part.