Food Stamps: Provide a Safety Net, Not a Mattress

In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” -Acts 20:35 (NIV)

Government provision of food stamps has become the second-largest welfare program in the country and is expanding rapidly. Rich Lowry shares the latest statistics, and they are troubling to say the least. Through the combined efforts of Presidents Bush and Obama, the number of people on food stamps has almost tripled in the last 12 years, growing from 17 million in 2000 to 46 million today! When the program began in the 1970s, only 1 in 50 Americans participated—now the number is 1 in 7.As a society, we have an obligation to reach out and help the poor and needy. At the same time, it is important to strike the right balance—we should provide for those in need without blunting their initiative to provide for themselves. Government programs—however well intended—should not foster a culture of dependence.

Additionally, we should never forget that the power of taxation is the power of confiscation.  Therefore, particular care should be taken when crafting government’s role in providing for the poor. We should not allow government to become an agent for the redistribution of the nation’s wealth—for the rich or the poor—and we should never allow policy makers to use the power to tax and spend as a means of cultivating constituencies designed to perpetuate their power.

The default answer for the poor should not be government aid. The needy who can work, should. If they refuse to do so, they should suffer the natural consequences of their indolence. As the Scriptures say, “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.” The natural consequence of hunger will lead the lazy man to work to satisfy his need. Too often, however, social welfare programs interrupt the cycle of natural consequences.

Forced “charity” that takes from the successful and merely redirects it to the unsuccessful provides the wrong kind of incentives.  Our tax and welfare systems should reward thrift, entrepreneurship, and industry, not indolence, timidity, and profligacy.

Concern for the poor implicates our view of humanity. In his excellent book The Tragedy of American Compassion, Marvin Olasky argues that our modern welfare state is entwined with an incorrect view of human nature. We now see humankind as inherently good, and if we are inherently good, then poverty is simply an accident—it cannot be connected to any possible wrongdoing. This mentality has produced a system in which every needy person is treated the same by a faceless government bureaucracy. There is no room for reform or redemption—all poor people are simply “hard up on their luck.”  But as we can see from our ballooning welfare programs, our present approach is not eliminating poverty.The needs of the poor vary on a case-by-case basis.  Consequently, they need personal, detailed, customized assistance. They need help from someone who knows when to give them some much needed financial aid and when to tighten the purse strings. Some need a short-term loan, some need full financial support for a time, some need a job, and some need counseling or help recovering from an addiction. Many have spiritual needs that outweigh their financial needs. Churches, charities, and private individuals can provide this personalized care—government rarely does. If we abdicate our responsibility to care for the poor and rely solely on government to provide for the poor, we forgo the possibility of better, more personal care.

Government programs are also notoriously inefficient. While private charities exhibit a wide spectrum of efficiency, at least their effectiveness can be analyzed by possible donors. The best dollars are spent at the best aid organizations—not funneled through a complex tax bureaucracy.

On the other side of the coin, government welfare programs often provide disincentives for private giving. When government assumes the primary role of caring for the poor, the need for individual charity diminishes. Sure we can all still give, but the pressure and need for personal giving becomes greatly reduced. In failing to give, the potential giver misses out on an unrealized blessing (Acts 20:35).Some might respond that private charities and churches can’t possibly do enough. And let me be clear—I am not arguing that there is no room for any form of government aid. But let’s not kid ourselves: We will not eliminate poverty through government redistribution of the wealth.  History and the Scriptures (Matthew 26:11) validate that the poor will always be with us.

Those who believe government more capable of shouldering the burden of poverty often ignore the unintended consequences of government welfare. All too often government poverty programs perpetuate poverty by encouraging the poor to remain poor through perverse incentives. And they give possible benefactors of the poor the easy excuse, “Well, they can always go to the government.” Welfare programs like food stamps are vast and growing. While government has a role to play, the safety net must not become a mattress for the lazy. Private charities and churches can fill much of the void with an approach that is more personal, more efficient, more local, and more redemptive.

Subsidizing indolence does not help the poor—helping them to improve their own financial position will produce lasting results.

Ken Connor is an attorney and co-author of “Sinful Silence: When Christians Neglect Their Civic Duty”  He is also Chairman of the Center for a Just Society.  For more articles and resources from Mr. Connor and the Center for a Just Society, go to www.centerforajustsociety.org
Ken Connor

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Ken Connor is the Chairman of the Center for a Just Society. An esteemed attorney, Connor is affiliated with the law firm of Marks, Balette, & Giessel, a firm nationally known for its successful representation of victims of nursing home abuse and neglect.

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  • Kate

    Did you know that many of the “poor” people are veterans who fought our wars for us and protected our country for us?  Don’t assume that most poor people are lazy. 

    You may never go through hard times, but that does not mean that others will not.  I have never needed government assistance (except for school loans, which I greatly appreciate), but I do not judge those who go through tough times and need assistance.  We never know when we, too, will be down on our luck. 

    I would rather error on the side of giving to those who don’t really need it that much than to withhold from those who are in dire need.

  • Christina

    You seem to have disdain for the poor by the tone of your article.  It sounds like you think poor people are generally lazy, deceitful and a bother, almost less than human.

    How much money do you personally donate to poor people and charities that help the poor in your neighborhood?  Do you help at a local food pantry, soup kitchen or homeless shelter? 

  • Roxyb03

    If the churches (& other private sector institutions)  are able to provide adequately for the needy why haven’t they done a better job of it ? 

  • George

    Great
    article!  People are letting their
    compassion blind them to reality. Obesity is a greater problem for our poor
    than access to food, people standing in soup lines are surfing the internet on
    smart phones, and our country is $16 TRILLION in debt. Nobody is saying to stop
    helping those who are truly in need. Let me say it again. Nobody is saying to
    stop helping those who are truly in need. 
    Government is horrible at identifying those truly in need.  Elected officials have a huge incentive for
    getting as many people on the dole as possible. 
    The more dependents there are, the more power people in office have.  Over-indulging kills incentive for those to
    whom it is given and for those from whom it is taken. Dignity is relieved from
    both parties as well. It is a death spiral for this country. Fewer and fewer
    people are willing to work hard. For the record, I helped at a local food
    charity for several months until I realized that no one I handed free food to
    was in dire need of more food, but many were in dire need of less food.  Let me say it again.  Nobody is saying to stop helping those who are
    truly in need.

  • drea916

    Great article! I grew up on programs and can’t stand them. I don’t think people realize how horrible it is to tell poor people that their situation is a random accident. If the poor person didn’t have a hand in creating their situation, then they must not have a chance of getting themselves out of it. YES, there are those who randomly get hit by bad situations (ie a house burns down, a man abandons his family, a person has a REAL disability) however, I think most kinds of poverty can be prevented by wise choices.  I’m still working my way up in the world, but I make wise choices (not get pregnant, going to school and working at the same time, being conservative with my money.) I’m doing better than my mother did at her age.

    I had been told all my life that the poor get poorer and the rich get richer. It was SO liberating when I read an article written by some nuns that described how there is a culture of poverty and people need to learn how to make different choices to get themselves out of it. For example, they discussed a woman that they were helping who was a single mother. She was barely getting by, but doing ok. When she received a tax return she used it on toys for her kid. Then her utility bill went up one month and she couldn’t pay it. The sisters helped her out, but taught her that she needs to save extra money for the unexpected.

  • AnnaMarie53

    Wow!  Other than “drea916″ and “George,”  these other people either don’t know how to read AND comprehend, or they have swallowed the government bureaucracy’s B.S. line hook, line, and sinker!
    If you provide such immense incentives for not working that to work will pay far better than working, of course people aren’t going to work!  It has always been true that American welfare has been intended to be a helping TEMPORARY hand, NOT a way of life!  While there are a record number of people on welfare right now, when it used to be a great embarrassment to have to take a government hand-out, besides those relatively few who truly have run into some sort of more or less permanent disaster, our biggest problem is that the Obama administration has put so many road blocks in the way of business in the form of unreasonable regulations and redistribution of wealth that nearly zero jobs are being created by private business!
    Get government out of the way of private business and a majority of the problem will go away.  Then, go back to requiring those who CAN work to work; NOT encourage the truly lazy to sit on their butts and take ever more of someone else’s money.
    One more thing…stop whining and get busy this November!  Out of control welfare spending is just one more reason (added to many) we absolutely cannot afford another four years of Obama!

  • GuEsT

    I will never donate to the poor because they all live better then the tax payers that pay their taxes, so these people can eat better then them. Who wants to depend on the tax payers? The lazy! Poor people don’t work because why work, when they can have food on their table and it doesn’t cost them a dime. Those that pay taxes sometimes don’t have enough to eat, but they don’t go out and apply for food stamps because they are honest, and honest people never get help. You have to be a liar and a baby makers of many babies knowing you don’t have the money to feed them.

  • GuEsT

    Veterans should have a pension, so why are they out on the street begging for money?  Alcohol makes people be what they never expected to become, so it’s their fault and they need to get help. A Veteran can be somebody, but they have to want to do it or become poor and homeless.

  • GuEsT

    Because they want the tax payers to do it and they are only there to collect money from the people that attend their church.

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