By ETHAN SMITH
A recurring issue that I notice popping up in political conversations is welfare. I myself often feel torn between the camps that favor and oppose the welfare system. Unfortunately, a lot of the dialogue I eavesdrop on strikes me as rather shallow. On one end, I often here things such as, “Well, I know lots of people on welfare who don’t work and spend all their money on drugs, beer and cigarettes. We should probably stop giving them money.” On the other, I hear “We should help people because it’s the right thing to do.” I feel that both these statements betray a lack of thought or contemplation. I had never thought much about welfare before I got to college. Since then, I’ve picked up on a few arguments that support or denounce our beliefs on welfare. I’ll offer them here, and try not to endorse one over the other. The goal of this article is not to convince readers to think right or left, but to think, period. This is a topic that affects both rich and poor, and we had best give it the time and thought it deserves.
First, let us consider those who believe that the welfare system is corrupt; I will concede that people abuse the system and use their funds for unnecessary items. I grew up with friends who were on free lunch and other financial assistance. I was always astounded that their parents had cash for cigarettes and beer but not their kid’s lunch. I liked my friends, and it made me angry. I thought that their parents shouldn’t have that money if they weren’t going to spend it to feed their own children. However, had the government chosen to do this, what would have happened to my friends? While their parents would have been in a hard place with no one to blame but themselves, my friends would have been in an even harder place. They would have been too young to work or fend for themselves. While they weren’t receiving as much aid from their parents as they should have, at least they were getting something. The alternative to their parents receiving welfare would be to be removed from their parents’ custody, which does not always have a positive effect on children.
Furthermore, what of the families who do not abuse the welfare system? Some people stay on welfare because they are lazy, but others stay on welfare because they either cannot find a job or are not physically capable of working. Why should these people suffer for other peoples’ actions? Remember in elementary school when five kids wouldn’t stop talking and the whole class would get in trouble? It’s like that, but the stakes are higher. Instead of time-out or no recess, the consequences are poverty and hunger.
Now, lets look at the other end of the spectrum, and the claim that, “We need to help people because that’s what we are supposed to do.” While this is admirable, this does little to justify the claim of who we help, when we help or how much help we are obligated to give. One might agree that we should help people, but not with the claim that we should shoulder the majority of their burdens. Some might support this claim by pointing out the moral arbitrariness of our circumstances. Essentially, the moral arbitrariness of circumstances takes into account that many of the factors that form our circumstances are beyond our control.
The span of factors impacting our identities and circumstances that are morally arbitrary is vast. Our race, parents, education, physiology and IQ all have a massive impact on our beliefs and capabilities, and we don’t have a say in any of them. If I am dealt a “bad hand” when it comes to circumstances, is it just that society ignores me? If I am born sickly with bad parents and go to a poor school, how is it fair that other people are born healthy with loving parents and an excellent education? Because the impoverished have little say in their circumstances, perhaps we are obligated to assist them if our circumstances are positive.
However, this street goes both ways. The same can be said of wealthy people who are born into positive circumstances. We agree that it is a bad thing when people cannot help themselves or practice autonomy because of their circumstances. However, if we force people to pay welfare because of their positive circumstances, how is that different? In both cases, people are deprived of their autonomy due to their circumstances.
An alternative to this might be to follow Christ’s commission to do unto others as we would have done to ourselves. If we would want help when we are in need, then we ought to help others when they are in need. If we are not willing to do this, what right do we have to expect help from others?
In summary, people can argue in circles for days about what they think is right in regard to welfare. It is up to no one but ourselves to decide which values we will apply our votes to.