Friday, April 10, 2009

Supporting the Welfare System, Part II: A Gospel Argument

Part I, the public policy argument for supporting the welfare system, is found here.

This is not going to be an argument that the Gospel requires us to support the federal welfare system. This is going to be an argument that it is perfectly in line with Gospel teachings to support a welfare system that aids the poor and needy, even if there are those that abuse the system, and that the typical criticisms of that system are not based on Gospel principles. There is no better place to start than with a lengthy excerpt from King Benjamin's speech in Mosiah 4:
16 And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.
17 Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—
18 But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.
19 For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?
20 And behold, even at this time, ye have been calling on his name, and begging for a remission of your sins. And has he suffered that ye have begged in vain? Nay; he has poured out his Spirit upon you, and has caused that your hearts should be filled with joy, and has caused that your mouths should be stopped that ye could not find utterance, so exceedingly great was your joy.
21 And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another.
22 And if ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance that he perish not, and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance, which doth not belong to you but to God, to whom also your life belongeth; and yet ye put up no petition, nor repent of the thing which thou hast done.
23 I say unto you, wo be unto that man, for his substance shall perish with him; and now, I say these things unto those who are rich as pertaining to the things of this world.
24 And again, I say unto the poor, ye who have not and yet have sufficient, that ye remain from day to day; I mean all you who deny the beggar, because ye have not; I would that ye say in your hearts that: I give not because I have not, but if I had I would give.
25 And now, if ye say this in your hearts ye remain guiltless, otherwise ye are condemned; and your condemnation is just for ye covet that which ye have not received.
26 And now, for the sake of these things which I have spoken unto you—that is, for the sake of retaining a remission of your sins from day to day, that ye may walk guiltless before God—I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants.
27 And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order.
There are a few things to take away from this scripture. First, it is our affirmative duty to give what we have in excess to the poor. Second, this duty is not conditioned on whether or not we think that poor person should really be more self-sufficient, our opinion that the poor are lazy, or how we think that poor person is going to spend our hard-earned money. Third, the only basis for receiving help is need. It is not whether or not I am worthy to receive help, whether I actually did bring this poverty upon myself, or any other predicate. If I am in need I should be helped. Fourth, it is hypocritical to judge the poor as unworthy of our support when we are completely dependent upon God for all that we have, and when he is freely merciful and giving of blessings despite our unworthiness to receive such.

Two more important things. One is that, in that classic Gospel irony that comes up all the time, when we help the poor and needy it is really ourselves that receive the benefit. Every single disadvantaged person that we help could be completely unworthy in every way of our money, from wasting away what we give on frivolities to being mean and uncharitable to others and the like, and it would still be the commandment to give because it is more about us than about them. It is about us "retaining a remission of [our] sins" and "walking guiltless before God." It is about us learning to part with our material possessions in order to learn to be more Christ-like.

Two, and finally, that last verse about running faster than we have strength and doing all things in order is often taken out of context and quoted on its own, unconnected with its context of giving to the poor. It is still useful out of context to be applied to many situations, but we forget that it is specifically given in regards to our charitable work. The problem of the poor and poverty is way too far-reaching and complex to dealt with on an individual basis. In order to be as efficient as possible, and touch the most lives possible, there needs to be organization. The government, as noted in Part I, uses about one quarter of one percent of your income (one percent of the federal budget) to help millions in poverty through welfare. There is still plenty left over to donate to fast offerings, other charities, or individuals that need help if you would like. But the government welfare system is one particular way to do charitable work in orderliness.

But, of course, the scriptural mandate to help the poor doesn't stop there. Here is a representative list of scriptures that encourage us to care for the poor and needy, among dozens more not linked here:

Alma 1:27

Luke 18:20-24

Doctrine and Covenants 42:30-31

Doctrine and Covenants 56:16-19

James 2:16-19

1 Samuel 2:7-8

Alma 4:12-13

Mormon 8:37-39

Deuteronomy 15:7-11

Alma 34:28-29

Doctrine and Covenants 124:75

Here is a list of scriptures that condemns the poor to their own devices because there are some unworthy among them, requires that the poor get serious and start becoming more self-sufficient, makes the poor feel guilty for requiring help, excuses our not giving because some of the poor are lazy or waste our hard-earned money, or justifies our judging of the poor to find out who is the most worthy to receive our help (among the common complaint of the welfare system):

(. . .)

See what I'm getting here? The typical rants against the welfare system are not Gospel based.

Now, there are modern day prophets and apostles who have extolled the virtues of self-sufficiency, but to a different end than I imagined before getting into this.

Marion G. Romney said that "we should strive to become self-reliant and not depend on others for our existence," and then warned that "governments are not the only guilty parties." Any form of charity has the threat to create dependency and one of the goals of any should be to foster independence. The welfare system may need some fixes in this regard, but it is not the worst offender and it is not worth condemning wholesale.

But Pres. Faust asks, "is personal self-sufficiency one of the reasons men and women lack faith?" When we get so caught up in self-sufficiency above all else, we can become "afraid to look to any source of wisdom and knowledge above" ourselves.

Pres. Hinckley concurred, stating that "I cannot escape the interpretation that meekness implies a spirit of gratitude as opposed to an attitude of self-sufficiency, an acknowledgment of a greater power beyond oneself, a recognition of God, and an acceptance of his commandments."

So to what end do we strive to be self-sufficient? It is clearly not absolute independence which leads to a lack of humility and gratitude. I thought the talk "Sacrifice and Self-Sufficiency" by Elder Ballard summed it up pretty well. He tells of the wards and stakes in South America striving to decrease the cost of missionary work in order to become self-sufficient. The saints decided that one thing they could do was provide lunch each day to the missionaries. This took sacrifice from each member.

By sacrificing to make sure that they, as a larger community, became self-sufficient, they reaped many blessings. The goal of self-sufficiency was to put themselves in a position to lift up all the members of their community and not leave anyone behind. Self-sufficiency was achieved through the aggregation of community efforts and through sacrifice to the common good.
Our responsibility is to become self-sufficient so that we can help the poor and needy, and strengthen our communities. One way, a way that helps people nationwide through minimal personal investment on our own part, is the government welfare system. Many of the typical criticisms by Church members of that system are not solidly based in Gospel principles, but are based on materialism and pride, as opposed genuine concern for the best way to help our fellow Americans that are poor and needy. So while the Gospel does not require our support for a governmental welfare system, it does debunk many of our notions of why it should be discarded.


peter said...

Alright, Jake, since I know how much you love abominably long comments from me, I didn't want to disappoint. Besides, it has to be this long to say what needs to be said, right? Kristy :)

I don’t know anybody (well, maybe on set of my grandparents) that are completely against government welfare (granted, I have never lived in the bastion of conservative, LDS Utah), and I don’t think any member of the church in good standing is against helping the poor. In their personal giving, I don’t even think that they worry too much about the arguments that you have put forth (self-sufficiency of recipients, etc.). However, when it comes to the administration of our government sponsored welfare system, the criticisms or suggestions that people make about its administration are valid and gospel oriented.

The many proofs that you submit about the importance of giving and not judging those to whom we give are important to remember. Each person needs to examine their heart and make sure it is filled with an attitude of thankfulness and liberal giving of our time, talents, and means. Our charitable actions are personal, private, and between us and the Lord. We should never judge anyone (either on the amount they give or their worthiness to receive) lest those judgments be used on us. (Moroni 7:18)

However, to overlook other commandments in extolling the virtues of one commandment is unbalanced and one-sided. We have also been told the following:

“…by the sweat of thy fact thou shalt eat thy bread…” (Gen 3:19, Moses 4:25, Moses 5:1)

“Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work…” (Ex 20:9)

“…and it came to pass that I, Nephi, did cause my people to be industrious, and to labor with their hands…” (2 Ne 5:17)

“Go to the ant, thou sluggard, consider her ways, and be wise.” (Prov. 6:6)

“work with your own hands, as we commanded you; That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing.” (Thesselonians 4:11-12)

“And I did cause that the men should till the ground, and raise all manner of grain and all manner of fruit of every kind. And I did cause that the women should spin, and toil, and work, and work all manner of fine linen, yea, and cloth of every kind, that we might clothe our nakedness; and thus we did prosper in the land.” (Mosiah 10:5)

There are more, but you get the picture. In addition to giving, we are commanded to be industrious and provide for ourselves. This topic, like giving to the poor, doesn’t say you should monitor the work your neighbor is doing, it is focused on our personal responsibility just as the direction and counsel about giving to the poor is. A person’s attitudes on both work and charity are between him and the Lord. Both are commandments…neither mutually inclusive nor mutually exclusive.

It would be hard to extend these principles, meant for the individual, to a larger organization providing welfare. The church itself does not give freely and indiscriminately in its welfare program. There are requirements that those receiving aid must meet in order to be helped. When limited resources are available, aid cannot be available for everyone all the time. A great example of this is the talk you cited by Elder Ballard. The church, with its limited number of resources, was not going to be able to continue the current level of aid to the saints in South America so it asked the saints in their own communities to think of ways to reduce spending and become more self-sufficient. Each person involved made a choice to become committed to the change and they did it together. It was not on the church wide level, but in the community. Likewise, I think many who criticize government welfare, would argue that a nation-wide level of welfare is a good base, but a good part of the work should be done at the state or community level where people are more invested in the outcome and the local situation.

Your conclusion states that “our responsibility is to become self-sufficient so that we can help the poor and needy.” This is exactly what we should do, and taken in conjunction with the talk by Marion G. Romney, I think we can safely assume that becoming self-sufficient is more desirable than being on the receiving end. And though we want to help people get out of the situation they are in and provide the welfare they need, failing to give them the tools to become self-sufficient or enabling the cycle of poverty deprives them of blessings that they could have in being self-sufficient and helping others.

The Lord said, “Thou shalt be diligent in preserving what thou hast, that thou mayest be a wise steward; for it is the free gift of the Lord thy God, and thou art his steward.” (D&C 136:27) And, “it shall come to pass, that…after that he has received these testimonies concerning the consecration of the properties of my church…agreeable to my commandments, every man shall be made accountable unto me, a steward over his own property, or that which he has received by consecration… Thou shalt not be idle; for he that is idle shall not eat the bread nor wear the garments of the laborer.” (D&C 42: 32, 42)

We are stewards of what the Lord has given us and we need to be wise with those blessings (including giving to the poor.) The church is a steward over the offerings we give and government is a steward over the taxes we pay. In all cases they need to be wise stewards. We should give liberally, but not unwisely. “Cast not your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet and turn again and rend you.” (Matt 7:6) Yes, I realize I took that out of its original context, but the spirit is the same.

So your documentation of the need to give liberally is important to remember, but to say that there is no doctrinal basis for the conservative arguments as to the best implementation of a welfare program is wrong. It is imperative that we give to the poor, but we are equally commanded to be wise stewards over those things we have been given and to work hard for what we receive.

Jacob S. said...

Peter (I think this is Peter this time),

I think we generally agree. Like I said, this was not meant to be an argument that the Gospel impels us to support government welfare, but that some of the more ugly and common arguments I hear opposing the welfare system are not correct. I never said, nor did I mean to imply, that there was no doctrinal basis at all to opposing the welfare system.

The people I was going after are those that disparage the poor in generalities and call them lazy, stupid, drags on our society, not worthy of our assistance, and the like. We are supposed to absolutely go out of our way to help those people, not vilify them.

I think that our system of society, or any that grows this large and complex, plays a major role in pressing a large portion of the population down to poverty, and therefore we should be doing equally as much in attempting to lift them back up. I think that is a Christian principle of righting our wrongs, though I will concede that many may disagree with me on that point.

But of course the welfare system isn't perfect and the Church's is much more just. That doesn't mean, though, that we should scrap it (which I'm not saying is your argument, but a common one out there). Thanks for reading and discussing, it really is a fascinating issue.

Josh said...

Surprisingly, I also believe that the welfare system should remain in place. However, to me, you seem to be saying that we need to ignore those chronic, lazy, users of the system because there are also good people, that actually need the help. Maybe I'm not reading correctly, it is very early, and I haven't slept well in about 2 weeks. I would say that there are even more good people out there that can't get the help they need because they work just a little too hard, and don't qualify. They don't qualify because of those that are too eager to just sit back and let the government pay their way, those that never have and never will work.

I have two beliefs about the welfare system.

1 - There should be a maximum time limit of benefits. A huge bane on our society is that we have been, and will continue, to pay out welfare money to the same jobless scum for decades.

2 - (I'm sure this one will really get some disagreement from you Jake) I want to see a drug screen in place before any government money is handed out. I don't believe that this violates any constitutional rights - although it would never fly past our glorious court system - because it would be voluntary. If you want the help, pee in the cup!