Today it seems as if everyone has a theory about fighting poverty, now it is not necessary to be moving in the theoretical plane. Our country has had successful anti-poverty programs that were effective back a century ago, effective because they were based on these seven points: affiliation, bonding, categorization, discernment, employment, freedom, and God. But a key element in all of them is personal involvement and challenge, both material and spiritual. If folks a hundred years ago could help others to move out of poverty, and then turn their attention to the next group of immigrants and impoverished, why an’t we?
Did they have more time than we do? No, even though we feel stressed, their work days on the average were longer. Did they have more money? No, we are far more affluent as a society now. Did they have more space in their homes, so they could take in another person and we cannot? No, on the average our houses are far larger. Did they have less of a drug and alcohol problem? Probably not. They did have fewer single-parenting situations – there was less illegitimacy and divorce then – but life expectancy was lower, so there were lots of orphans and half-orphans. We’re more pread out now, but our travel time is not any greater.
What I learned leads me to wonder: Why can’t we do the same? Were Americans then a different people than we are today? Have we become so corrupted that we don’t care about others? Have we become so lazy that we are unwilling to suffer with? I think not. I hope not. But we have become used to having someone else do it for us – even though we know that a professional social worker, with a case load of 200 or so, can’t do much more than shuffle paper. Bad charity drives out good. My conclusion is that when we complain about a spendthrift modern elfare state, we’re right about the costs but we’re actually stating the problem backwards.
The major flaw of the modern welfare state is not that it is extravagant, but that it is too stingy. It gives the needy bread and tells them to be content with that alone. It gives the rest of us the opportunity to be stingy also: We can soothe our consciences as we scrimp on what many of the destitute need most – love, time, and challenge. We need to recapture the optimism that a look at history can provide. We need to recapture the understanding that a true definition of compassion suggests.