The Great Depression may have marked a crisis point for the way our nation viewed poverty. So many were unemployed, hungry, even starving, that a new type of public policy seemed needed. In what some would view as a move toward socialism the federal government developed programs designed as safety nets for the welfare of the struggling population. It was at the least an admission that a great society could not stand idly by cloaked with the pure ideas of rugged individualism and personal responsibility, while vast segments of the population experienced unmerited poverty in the midst of an economic calamity.
The evolution of this system of safety nets fueled by well-meaning leaders, pandering politicians, national conscience, compassion, and deficit spending; has had the unintended consequences of promoting an entitlement mentality, a decline in the American work ethic, and ultimately fostering the establishment of a persistent underclass of citizens. Viewed through the classic analogy of "giving a man a fish versus teaching him to fish" we have too often chosen to simply give the man a fish. And so, while providing sustenance to the needy, which is often a very necessary short-term measure, we have frequently been woefully inadequate in "teaching men to fish", while these safety nets intended as temporary salves become long-term lifestyles and sometimes generational societal structures. In providing for many their basic needs, and sometimes even for some limited comforts, though altruistic in our aim, we rob from them much of the motivation to provide these things for themselves, and by so doing we deter them from a path to dignity and self-esteem.
Do not imagine that this dynamic is restricted to those living below the poverty line. Consider reports of the engineering firm unable to fill $60,000/yr. positions with qualified individuals as recruiting prospects reported that it made more sense for them to remain on extended unemployment? Anecdotal as this may be, is it uncommon for people to remain on extended unemployment rather than take a less than perfect job offering? How many of us would sooner moonlight at a second job than accept food stamps, or a heating assistance grant? Few. It is unfortunate that Rush Limbaugh exceeded the bounds of acceptable humor in discussing the testimony of Georgetown law student and activist Sandra Fluke. Instead of arguing about what entertainers from Limbaugh to Bill Maher should be allowed to call women with whom they disagree (apparently you can call men whatever you want), the spotlight should have been on her testimony itself. How have we come to the place that someone in the position of attending a law school charging over $23,000 per semester, should be able to talk about not being able to afford her own birth control? If things are indeed that tight, perhaps a less expensive college choice is indicated, not the expectation that a Catholic institution should violate the tenets of its faith to provide it for you.
Somewhere along the line we have come to expect that we should not have struggles, that we should not need to make sacrifices and difficult choices. I am reminded of the example of the butterfly that requires the struggle of escaping its cocoon to be able to fly, given too much assistance it is doomed to crawl for the rest of its existence. We need to be compassionate for the poor and the struggling, and it is good to have safety nets for those who are overwhelmed and powerless in their circumstances, but simply throwing money at a problem is seldom enough to solve it, and often it creates even bigger problems. Few believe that the food stamp recipient who won the lottery will now turn her life around and never need assistance again. How telling that one can comment that winning $500,000 "probably did little to change her overall situation". The anonymity of the bureaucracy helps us to ignore that the assistance we receive, and have come to expect, is money that at one time belonged to another individual. Were it logistically possible it would be better if it were received directly from their hand, and a thank-you note should be required!
IMHO: Like the "take-a-penny" tray at the checkout, our system of safety nets and assistance programs is intended to help people in a pinch, and to return the favor when you have some extra pennies. Too often we have turned it into a "free pennies" bonanza, with customers using the entire tray to pay for their purchases day after day. Whereas personal giving and smaller charity preserves enough recognition of the gift to foster a driving desire to not require assistance except in desperate circumstances, government programs conjure an image of a money tree, some grand stash that we are entitled to get our share of. The necessity of ensuring that our citizens are provided with the essentials does not preclude the responsibility we have to not becoming codependent enablers in addicting them to something that robs their dignity of self-reliance. We have a few programs to assist the self-motivated to better their circumstances, but many need more of a "tough love" approach to be moved toward self-reliance. All of our values need to be "re-evaluated". Like the Cinderella Man we may struggle, but we can't become bums. Like Cinderella herself, despite difficult circumstances, dignity, hope, and destiny must always be preserved. Our system needs to be revamped to one that cures the patients, not just keeps them comfortable in their distress. It is unfortunately less complicated to provide a hospice than a hospital.