A couple of days ago I was listening to a radio show on Sirius. The hosts were playing audio of a woman who had spent six hours waiting in line at the welfare office. The woman did not sound particularly old, and she had six kids.
There were several disconcerting elements to the story. The fact that this woman waited so long highlights the inefficiencies of government bureaucracies. More importantly, it was clear that this woman not only depended on the welfare checks to get by, the attitude expressed in the soundbite revealed how deeply she felt entitled to the government benefits.
No one should begrudge those who truly need government assistance. I know nothing of this woman’s history, so I won’t comment on her situation specifically. But I was saddened as I listened to this woman speak, and I thought of how welfare has turned many people into truly helpless individuals – not because they are so by nature, but because that is what the welfare state does to people.
The radio hosts who played this story have what can be described as a libertarian bent, and they decried the welfare state’s tendency to breed dependency. Yet I couldn’t help but laugh at their willful blindness, for they are certainly the types who would mock social conservatives. So many libertarians, or socially liberal and economically conservative individuals, fail to appreciate the nexus between social and economic issues. The breakdown of the family contributes to the rise of the welfare state. More and more children are born out of wedlock, and single mothers must turn to the state to provide financial support to their families. Yet these social libertarians (indeed some of them are libertines) see no contradiction in promoting lax cultural mores while decrying ever-increasing government dependency.
Yet libertarians are not the only ones who fail to connect economic and social issues. Looking at it from a different perspective, those who consider themselves socially conservative but who advocate enhanced government intervention in economic affairs do not see how the welfare state itself leads to the breakdown of the family. The welfare state has practically displaced the family in many situations, fostering the sense of independence from family life. The family hasn’t been wholly displaced as the primary means of financial support, but many people have been brought up to expect that the government will be there to bail them out of poor life choices. Therefore, just as the breakdown of the family contributes to the rise of the welfare state, the welfare state itself contributes to the breakdown of the family. It is a vicious cycle, and those who insist that we can separate economic and social issues perpetuate that cycle.
One of the difficult balances to achieve in the area of politics dealing with “social services”, and with bringing a proper Catholic understanding to how we as Christians should strive to shape such policies, is knowing how we should balance efficiency with proper concern for human dignity and human pride. I see this as being particularly the case when it comes to some of the large scale assistance programs which form part of our “social safety net” in the United States. Many of these are, it seems to me, essentially welfare of “assistance programs”, yet are cloaked in the form of all-encompassing “savings” or “insurance” programs.
For example, the purpose of Social Security was clearly to assure that the aged are not relegated to poverty once they are no longer able to work. In the past, this was done through private savings, the help of one’s children, and the help of one’s community. However, these mechanisms often fell through, and so people often found themselves in poverty in their old age. Thus was created the Social Security system, which collected money via a payroll tax and “saved” it to fund retirement payouts after age 65. Medicare, which is designed to assure that the elderly can afford medicare care is much the same.