Fair Questions: Who is responsible for fighting poverty?

One of my friends shared a link to an article about a political figure who suggested that we could reduce healthcare costs dramatically by trying to reduce emergency room visits.  Predictably, the top commenter made a snarky remark about letting the poor die being a way to cut medical spending.  It may be that Governor Deal was callously indifferent to the deaths of poor folks like me who are working their way through college and can’t afford health insurance.  But I’m not going to assume that is his motivation or that he has no alternative ideas for caring for the poor.

I find it puzzling that the assumption of the progressive is so often that government programs are what the poor need, and that not supporting government programs is denying them the assistance they need. (Maybe I should be saying ‘we’ instead of ‘they’ given that I live below the poverty line and don’t have health insurance.)

Now a progressive might point out that in today’s climate of “greed is good” we cannot rely on private charity to provide that assistance. And I agree. We can no longer rely on private charity because virtue is no longer important in our culture, at least not in any more than the most superficial sense of engaging in social niceties. Social progressives have played a strong role in eliminating virtue as a social imperative over the past few decades, so I’m not sure those are the folks who should be casting stones.

The main problem I have with the use of the state to provide resources to those who do not have them is that it actually reinforces that lack of virtue. We no longer need (as individual citizens) to care for the poor because that’s the government’s responsibility. It makes it easy for us to say, “Someone else should take care of that. It’s not my job.”  We are creatures of habit, and if our habit is to pass responsibility for caring for the poor and vulnerable along to some other entity rather than owning that responsibility ourselves, then we are likely to continue to grow increasingly unaccustomed to ministering to the poor ourselves.

The problem is that it very much is our job to take care of the poor and vulnerable, and that when we offload even part of that responsibility on the state, we are losing an opportunity to practice virtue and build up the habit of generosity which is so essential to combating the “greed is good” mentality. If we want a society in which people are generous, we have to build a society of people who are in the habit of being generous.  In effect, the well-intentioned policies of progressives implemented to combat poverty often erode the very thing we need to continue to combat poverty: the motivation of the people who have more to give it away to those who have less and to minister to them as human beings in the process.

The poor don’t just need food stamps and the opportunity for medical care; the poor need to be invited into the community as friends or family members, and that’s not something the government is really equipped to do.  In performing volunteer work I’ve learned that many of the poorest people are struggling with mental illness or addiction.  Simply providing them with resources might prolong their existence, but we should be doing more than prolonging their existence; we should be helping improve their quality of life by befriending them and supporting them.  We should help them acquire habits which will empower them to live fulfilling lives.  The poor need a human companion to love them unconditionally much more than a state to feed them conditionally.

The war on poverty will not be won by the state, nor will it be won by NGOs or transnational governments.  The war on poverty will be won by the full expression of heroic generosity in the human heart.  So let’s start cultivating it.

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