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Why Welfare Doesn’t Work

June 20, 2019 (940 words)

We all know that welfare doesn’t work, and we all know why. Government hand-outs create a feeling of entitlement, and encourage a culture of dependency. The recipients fail to take ownership of what they are given, and feel no responsibility for their circumstances.

It’s not that we are hard-hearted toward the less-fortunate, only that we can’t shake the feeling that nobody ever gave us anything, and we’ve had to work for everything we have.

In this we express our belief in the American Dream. But there is more to the story than a straightforward celebration of the red, white, and blue. The disdain we end up feeling toward welfare recipients is based on a misreading of the situation, ours and theirs.

In the first place, there is supposed to be more to life than the success we take such pride in, and the stock-piling of money. The best things in life really are free. And God is responsible for every good gift. Always has been, and always will be.

the end game of human existence…

But we live in a country founded on a secular belief in material advancement as the end game of human existence. It’s the only measuring stick we use. And we studiously maintain a separation of religious belief from the public square where our true religion – commerce – is practiced.

Our big, bustling economy does throw off a lot of opportunity, and many of us, especially the clever and the advantaged, have been able to ride the wave and get ahead. But the notion that we successful gringos all came from nothing and made ourselves into something is a highly overrated, self-congratulatory myth. In a monumental display of hubris, we have left God completely out of the picture.

We are willing to help the less fortunate, but we want to see them lift themselves up by their bootstraps, so they will not need our assistance, long-term. We think of welfare recipients as being lazy and unwilling to work. But it’s been so long since our own salad days that we are out of touch with what life is like on the far side of the economic spectrum these days.

Things have changed a lot since we were first coming up, some forty or fifty years ago. For a variety of reasons, our economy simply doesn’t work for those with a less-than-stellar level of cognitive ability, as it once did. It’s hard to be motivated as a healthy young male, when your only job prospects are minimum wage, with no benefits, and no promise of steady employment.

Prosperity is the only religion we have to offer our citizenry, and those on the lower end of the ladder can clearly see what they are missing out on. Can we really be surprised when welfare recipients fail to knee at the altar, when they are permanently consigned to the back pews?

offering a corrective to this state of affairs…

As a corrective to this bitter state of affairs, I would ask you to consider the response of poor Guatemalans who benefit from the efforts of an international relief agency by the name of Cross Catholic Outreach (CCO).

CCO is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit Catholic organization that partners with Catholic dioceses, parishes, and missionaries in developing countries around the world to help the poorest of the poor in a variety of ways. It seeks to mobilize the global Catholic Church to transform the poor and their communities materially and spiritually for the glory of Jesus Christ.

Guatemala was once a thoroughly Catholic country, but that changed after the colonial era. It now has a population of 16 million people, with the largest economy in Central America. But the levels of poverty – especially in the rural and indigenous areas – are among the highest in Latin America.

A culture of violence is a lingering by-product of the 36-year civil war which just ended in 1996. The pronounced economic disparity has spurred an active drug trade, sex-trafficking, and a high level of domestic abuse.

sharing a profound sense of gratitude…

During a recent visit to this mountainous country as part of a small group of feisty American Catholics, I got to meet and listen (through an interpreter) to a few of the recipients of various CCO-sponsored initiatives. They all had one thing in common: a sense of profound, overwhelming gratitude.

These grindingly poor, materially disadvantaged men and women all thank God first, for what little (from our perspective) they have been given. Then they thank their local priest (one of whom traveled with us for a day), who personally coordinates and supervises many of the charitable initiatives they benefit from, and who stands with them throughout their many trials, in solidarity. Then they thank Cross Catholic Outreach, as the provider of the means.

And finally they also thank us, their modest American benefactors. I would venture to say every member of our little group felt a bit awkward at this last, since, as one member of our party so eloquently put it, we don’t need to be thanked for trying to address, in our own small way, a grave injustice that has been visited upon an entire people.

You come away convinced these poor Guatemalans, for all the material challenges they face, are keenly aware of their spiritual blessings. And that we, as Americans, while having received material blessings beyond our wildest expectations, have somehow allowed ourselves to become spiritually impoverished.

You can’t help wondering who, in the long run, is ahead of the game.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
June 20, 2019

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