Recently, I had someone tell me that requiring drug testing for welfare recipients was a human rights violation. The conversation that followed caused me to begin to ponder about the welfare system and its effect on the recipients.
I began to remember all the talk about "the War on Poverty" which was supposed to end all poverty in the U. S. The idea was that if people were poor all their financial needs (medical, food, housing) should be given to them with few or no strings until they could provide for themselves. The result was welfare checks which split families, removing the father from the household; food stamps which could be used (at first) to purchase anything a grocery store sold; and Medicaid which provided free health care. Interestingly, the number of successful "graduates" from the program is minimal.
Perhaps one of the most vocal "graduates" is Starr Parker who got off the system, got an education and now is a columnist. Her columns make more sense than any of the programs' ideas. She is very much opposed to the idea of lifelong recipients. She recognized the difference between compassion for the poor and the enabling of bad habits and poor life choices. Prior to reading her column, I had had only two encounters with the effects of our welfare system.
The first was the family of a student I taught years ago. He was one of six children in a single parent family. The mother had worked at night in a local restaurant until the father abandoned the family. Because two of the children were teenagers, she had quit her job to be at home to supervise her children. She was embarrassed that she was the only person in her family ever to have to accept welfare.
Her children were scrubbed within an inch of their lives, well mannered, always on time to school and always had their homework. She and her family participated for six years in a program our church provided for "striving poor." She made a garden every year, canning and drying food for the winter. Though they lived in a house with no running water and (when we first met) had no electricity; her children had grateful hearts. Her greatest fear was that her children would be "sucked into living like this." She need not have feared.
Years later, I encountered one of her daughters who updated me on the family. All six children and the mother were fully employed, buying their own homes (not one of the government programs which later sucked low income people into homes they could not afford), and active in food and clothing programs in their own churches. All had pursued post secondary training to equip them for the work world.
The second encounter with the effects of the welfare system was through a student I taught in a teacher education program. He already had a BS in social studies but had decided he wanted to teach. So, he had abandoned a very successful career as a professional bass fisherman to enter a post bac teacher preparation program. He was attending class at night and supporting himself with multiple part time jobs including being a substitute teacher. He was one of, if not the, most talented "natural" teacher I've ever known.
One evening he came to class visibly upset. When I opened up the class with my usual question: Does anyone have anything we need to deal with before we begin?
"I sure do!" he exclaimed. "You lied to us! You told us how wonderful teaching was but you didn't tell us how awful it can be!"
It turned out he had subbed in a math class that day. To make the lesson more interesting, he had combined the math skills into a real life application: the planning of a Super Bowl party. He had brought in the grocery sales sections from local stores. The premise he proposed was that each small group should use the papers to plan a party within a $25.00 budget. How many people could they invite? What could they afford to serve? How much would they need?
One young woman was totally disengaged with her group. When he tried to engage her, she informed him that she didn't need to know all this math stuff. He tried to coax her.
"When you're out of school and working, you will need this math to be sure your employer pays you correctly. You don't want people taking advantage of you."
"I don't have to worry about that stuff! I don't plan to go to work and, if somebody cheats me, I'll just tell the social worker and they'll go after them." He said her expression was smug and arrogant.
"If you don't work, how do you think you will eat?" he asked.
"Easy! First off, when I get me a baby, I get a check and housing and food stamps. I'll just stay home and watch my soaps. Then, anytime somebody messes with me, I just tell the social worker and they have all kind of ways of fixing it." He said she "positively sneered at me."
He told us, "I lost it. By that time, the whole class was paying close attention. I told her, 'Look around this room and point to the young man you think is dumb enough to give you a baby knowing his only value to you is as a stud.' Here I was trying to help her have a better life than her parents only to find out that's where she learned an alternative lifestyle that didn't value earning their way. Her dad had moved out so his wife and children could qualify for the welfare programs."
A few short months later, he left the program just months from graduation. He had lost the conviction that he could change lives.
Ms. Parker was my third encounter with the effects of the welfare system. She articulates a very convincing case that our War on Poverty programs are better examples of endenturement rather than compassion. She says they are "enabling" self-destructive behaviors.
As I once again pondered these things, I had to agree with Thomas Sowell (an incredible economics professor and columnist who worked his way up from poverty). He sees welfare programs as a modern day form of slavery. The government removes all adult responsibility from recipients, reinforcing negative self-image of themselves as dependent, incapable persons, destroying families and individuals alike.
Somehow, I can't convince myself that any of that is compassionate.