I’ve been thinking about social safety nets–in case you’re new to this terminology, that means government programs like food stamps, Obamacare/ACA, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security–and the idea of personal responsibility–making choices that let you live in health and comfort. In political discourse, those two are often presented as opposites: Either you have a system of government that encourages personal responsibility, or your government provides social safety nets.
But, as I said, I’ve been thinking about this. Black-and-white views that say either them or us simplifies issues that simply aren’t simple. So to speak. Here are some things I’ve thought about this, in no specific order.
Many people who extol personal responsibility and hard work tend to despise social safety nets. They see these programs as encouraging lazy, shiftless bums to mooch off the system–and who pays for them to sit on their couches and watch TV all day? All of US hardworking folks, that’s who! Now, if this was a book or if I was a journalist, I’d have done research on the actual demographics of people relying on these different services, and I’d have some nice hard data to make some good firm statements.
I’m not, and I haven’t, so I’m not even going to get into whether that stereotype is accurate or not. Instead, I’ve been wondering is: What kind of nation do we want to be? Because how we answer that question fundamentally addresses what kind of society we choose to build.
Do we want to be the kind of society where we let people make mistakes and give them second, third, fourth, or even more chances, acknowledging that people can fail and often need help? (And I don’t want to suggest that all people relying on social safety nets have made mistakes or are weak failures. Many will be there through no fault of their own. Or maybe that’s just my liberal bias speaking, eh?)
Or will we instead insist that people who make mistakes, or who need help, must help themselves or die trying? If you have the misfortune to be born in the wrong place, to the wrong parents, do you deserve to suffer? If you are lucky in birth but unlucky in life, is there no grace?
Because okay, let’s say some people are gaming the system. Does that mean we shouldn’t help the other people who really need it? Jesus didn’t demand that we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps; the whole concept of grace tells us that we can never be good enough, and that’s why Jesus came in the first place. Because people are people, and can’t be perfect. He came to pick up the slack. To hold us up when we stumble. To be there time and again, after every failure.
As Christians, we believe that Jesus preached the importance of caring for the “widows and orphans” — those worse-off than ourselves. I’ve heard it said that we should therefore support private enterprises engaged in this work. I don’t disagree; my family gives money to some such. But there are so many people who need so much help that no private organization, or even plethora of organizations across the country or the world, could reach everyone.
The government’s job is to keep track of people and take care of them. They can reach people who need help, and they have the resources to make a difference. You may not like the government; maybe you think it’s too big and needs to be smaller. Pass some of that responsibility on to local governments or NGOs. Streamline that bloated monster, get rid of all the waste. Okay to that, too. But we have to live with the system in place right now, and our system is one where the government is responsible for helping people.
Again, I come back to the idea of second chances, grace, and helping those less fortunate.
It’s easy to insist on people taking care of themselves, right up until something happens to you. Then you’re glad that net is down there after all.
When you’re 85 years old and have minimal retirement savings, what would you do without Social Security? When you’ve made bad life choices, are unemployed, and need a liver transplant, where will you find insurance coverage but through the ACA? When you’re a hardworking farmer who’s struggling to make ends meet competing against ginormous agri-business and you get some bad weather, those farm subsidies are lifesavers. When you’re a single mom working two jobs trying to support your three elementary-aged kids, where will you turn? What NGO can ensure you’re fed, clothed, housed and taken care of while you try to make ends meet?
Financial disasters happen, health disasters happen, and while I certainly advocate people preparing (I do work for a financial advisor; our business is planning for this kind of stuff), we need to acknowledge that sometimes things happen far beyond an individual’s ability to prepare.
Sure, it’s easy to insist on personal responsibility, but when crap happens that is beyond our ability to plan and control, then what?
As a people, I think it’s up to those of us who have some to assist those who have none. No, we don’t have an ideal system. But the one we have helps millions of people in need. We need to stop thinking about the programs and how much they hurt us, and start thinking about the people, and how much they are hurting.