Food Stamps: Let’s 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.

Kenneth L. Connor is the Chairman of the Center for a Just Society, 1220 L St. NW, Suite 100-371, Washington, DC 20005. Email: info@centerforajustsociety.org and website: http://www.centerforajustsociety.org.