What will we do when the poor get cut off?

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!

2 thoughts on “What will we do when the poor get cut off?

  1. One of the major problems is that Christians do not seem to heed these words of Christ to serve him among the poor, the naked, the thristy, etc. Yet He is clear that we will be judged in relation to our love (or lack thereof) for Him through the least of our brothers and sisters. Pope Benedict’s wisdom seems appropriate in relation to your post:

    “The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.

    b) Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable.[20] The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. The Church is one of those living forces: she is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ. This love does not simply offer people material help, but refreshment and care for their souls, something which often is even more necessary than material support. In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live “by bread alone” (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3)—a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human” (Deus Caritas Est).

    The faithful (not all) have handed a large part of our mission over to the bureaucracy of the goverment. Christians are in the best position to offer what all people are in desperate need of – love. Maybe a scenario in which the government cut back on funding so many social programs would get Christians off their laurels. We are our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper and it is time that we take ownership of this mission which we have since the times of the early Church – “See how the Christians love one another” (Tertullian). We need justice, but above all we need charity coupled with the Truth and our secular government simply cannot provide this. Is it really a Christian attitude for people to think that we should simply let the government take care of poor and needy? The “Gospel of health and wealth” has clouded the vision of God’s people such that we have forgotten about any common good. Maybe its about hight time we woke up to the cry of the poor lest we hear those words “Depart from me…I do not know you.” Let’s get in the short line to the pearly gates behind people like Francis of Assisi and Mother Theresa of Calcutta. Christians will need to do more sacrificing to offer works of mercy to those less fortunate than us, but in light of Christ’s teaching in Matthew 24 we should have been doing this the whole time.

    “Be just to your subjects, swinging neither to right or left, but holding the line of justice. Always side with the poor rather than with the rich, until you are certain of the truth. See that all your subjects live in justice and peace, but especially those who have ecclesiastical rank and who belong to religious orders.”

    — St. Louis, King of France, Letter to His Son, d. 1270

    • As I wrote, I prefer a scenario in which the church takes care of the poor instead of the government, but this would require a MAJOR shift. The token things that we congratulate ourselves for doing now would be woefully inadequate in a world where we would have to provide medical care, counseling, job training and networking, etc, through the church. It’s not as though this hasn’t been done historically. Social services originated in the church. They somehow got outsourced to the government in the 20th century. I’m ignorant of the actual history of how that transition occurred. Would like to read up on it. Perhaps people will be more interested in church if their skills really are needed in concrete ways unlike the pageantry that often passes for “mission” work in today’s church.

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