Three years ago, I paid one of the first pastoral visits of my first field education internship. A girl named Dunia was in the hospital with severe appendicitis. Her mother Maribel was very distraught because she had already lost a daughter when she lived in rural Mexico where the health care system is much less adequate. Dunia had her appendix taken out, Medicaid paid for it, and she got healthy again.
Dunia is the princess of her family, the baby sister of four much older brothers who absolutely adore her. In the time since I first met Dunia and her mother Maribel, I’ve become part of their extended family. My family is currently driving to North Carolina to attend the quinceañera of Dunia’s cousin Karla. All of this is to disclose up front that I’m personally biased regarding the budget talks in Washington about cutting back on Medicaid so that rich people can keep their Bush tax breaks (which haven’t created any more jobs than Obama’s stimulus though nobody ever points that out). There’s a little girl who’s going to give me a big hug on Saturday night who might have died if there had been no Medicaid.
Maybe that isn’t fair. The UNC hospital would have probably taken her without insurance anyway, but how many times would they be able to do that for poor kids currently covered by Medicaid until their budget went belly-up? One thing’s for sure. If there were no Medicaid, then Dunia’s cousin April wouldn’t have had braces.
Perhaps that’s reasonable. Why should taxpayers pay for April’s teeth to be straight? It seems pretty silly to argue that straight teeth should be a “right”
for all Americans until I start thinking about the nature of job interviews and the way we make all sorts of unconscious judgments about people based on their personal appearances. To what degree is Medicaid responsible for the fact that you can walk into a public high school room and not immediately know the socioeconomic status of every student in the room by their teeth? How many other ways that we don’t know about do government programs make it possible for poor kids to avoid being defined and held back by their poverty? Social mobility is one of the main boasts of American exceptionalism. If we lose all the mechanisms that make social mobility possible, will American exceptionalists pretend that it still exists and keep on bragging about it?
I understand and agree with many of the sentiments that motivate people to be skeptical of “government programs.” It makes sense to mistrust any kind of centralization of power. I believe that power should be localized and decisions should be made by the communities that are impacted by them. It also makes sense to wonder if there can be accountability and efficiency in bureaucracies that aren’t under any pressure to perform competitively.
On a Christian level, we add the dichotomy between the kingdom and the world. How can we say that Jesus is the way, truth, and life and believe that solutions are supposed to come from our secular government? I’ve been reading the part of Hauerwas and Willimon’s Resident Aliens where they rip to shreds the Niebuhr brothers’ views on “pragmatic” Christian engagement with the government. When we belong to the kingdom, we’re supposed to do things differently. We’re supposed to take care of people like we take care of family, not like impersonal clients of large bureaucracies.
From the snippets I’ve read in which Tea Party activists actually speak for themselves, it seems like they would say they’re not arguing for selfishness over altruism but arguing that taking care of people who need help should be the purview of churches and private groups rather than government bureaucracies. I think Jim Wallis is oversimplifying when he describes the clash of moral visions in our budget crisis as a conflict between those believe in the common good and those who only believe in individual goods. Another way of framing the debate is between those who believe that social safety nets should be guaranteed by the government and those who believe that private individuals can and should underwrite our communities’ safety nets. (I’m not interested in seriously engaging the views of those who try to demonstrate that poor people are “immoral” in order to justify disobeying Christ’s command to love our neighbors.)
If we take at face value the argument that benevolence should be privatized and handled by churches (rather than assuming this argument is a complete ruse for greedy rich people), then we have to face the fact that this would signify a MAJOR paradigm shift for the way churches do things and budget their money. Will churches start budgeting for social workers? Will they add rooms for x-ray machines and operating tables and dentist chairs in their basements? Will they buy school buses and line up volunteer drivers for kids whose parents don’t have cars to drive them to school?
Part of me gets excited thinking about all the ministry opportunities that would open up for churches if all the government safety nets got cut. But then I think about how our church budgets would have to increase 1000% and how few people in our churches actually put more than pocket change in the offering plate and how many people are too busy to even come to worship on Sundays. Would they give up their kids’ soccer games to sit at the reception desk of free weekend health clinics at the church? Would they give up expensive vacations and band together with other families to pay for an MRI machine? How much do those cost anyway? $100K? $500K?
I’m not sure what we would do at Burke United Methodist Church. We do tend to have a very generous congregation, but when people come into our church asking for money, we won’t even talk to them unless they have a case-worker with the county. That way we know they’re legit and accountable to somebody. So what will happen when they don’t have a case-worker to go to? How will we distinguish between con artists and people in genuine crisis? How will we track people whom we help to ensure that they’re not wasting our money and that they have some kind of game plan for getting back on their feet? Will we pay for members of our church to go to school for social work and then hire them as permanent staff to make these difficult judgments? Or will we just throw our money around wastefully (which would be extremely ironic if that’s what we accuse the government of doing)?
I don’t have a problem with the idea that churches should take care of the poor. It would probably require a lot more of our money in the offering plates than we would save in taxes because we would have all kinds of redundancy in the social service offerings of churches without a whole lot of coordination and centralized planning. There would be turf wars. There would be divas and soup kitchen nazis (probably more so than in the unglamorous, underpaid world of government social services). But it would certainly force many Christians to interact directly with the poor who currently have no face time with them outside of token mission trip moments in which genuine relationships have no time to form. I know that my relationships with poor people have been a huge part of my Christian journey. Maybe others would be similarly blessed. Or maybe they would wear out quickly and long for someone to send a check to. What’s certain is that when Jesus asks where we were when he was hungry, thirsty, and naked, we won’t be able to say, “Oh, well that’s the government’s job.” There might be a shorter line at the pearly gates!