Thursday, October 7, 2010

40 Days, and the necessities of life

One charge leveled at pro-life Americans is that they only want to see women have their babies--they don't want anyone to help out afterward. I don't think any truly pro-life person thinks so; however, I do know that some Republicans, especially the "fiscal conservative" sort, sometimes do give that impression.

The comments below this article are an example of the sort of thing I'm talking about--but then again, I can't claim to be really untroubled by the article, either:

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Once a month, just after midnight, the beeping checkout scanners at a Walmart just off Interstate 95 come alive in a chorus of financial desperation.

Here and at grocery stores across the country, the chimes come just after food stamps and other monthly government benefits drop into the accounts of shoppers who have been rationing things like milk, ground beef and toilet paper and can finally stock up again.

Shoppers mill around the store after 11 p.m., killing time until their accounts are replenished. When midnight strikes, they rush for the checkout counter. [...]

One in seven Americans lives in poverty, and more than 41 million are on food stamps, a record. Last year the figure was about 35 million. [...]

Not counting Social Security, one in six Americans now receives some form of government assistance, including food stamps, Medicaid and extended unemployment benefits.

These government payouts now account for about 20 percent of Americans' total after-tax income, said David Rosenberg, an economist at investment firm Gluskin Sheff. The average over the past half-century is 13 percent.

The high number of people on government assistance is atypical for this stage of an economic recovery. Usually at this point, growth in assistance rolls should be flattening, Rosenberg said.

And if we do count Social Security? The mind boggles. Or, well, it doesn't, really; what person out there doesn't look at the five or ten or twenty or thirty or forty thousand or more difference between his income on paper and his actual take-home pay, and not realize that we're reaching a crisis point in our ability to pay into a system that is paying out more than it will ever receive?

Most of the families detailed in the article were simply moms, dads, and children, trying to scrape by on a too-small income in a time of economic downturn. Some of the commenters suggested that not having any children, or at the very least having only one or two, was the answer--and some said this very rudely, in a way that would have made Margaret Sanger and her fellow eugenicists very proud. But as other commenters pointed out, who knows if Dad was working at a better job, and maybe Mom was working too, before this little recession which everybody but the middle and lower-middle class now seems to think is over?

In other words, there's nothing wrong with a nation as great as America making it a priority to have strong, flexible safety nets for families in crisis. If we can afford to prosecute wars in foreign lands where our national security interests are unclear at best, we can afford to feed American children should their parents be disparately affected by our refusal to protect American jobs and American industries.

At the same time, though, I share the concerns of those who worry that too many of these programs are becoming a way of life, not a safety net, for too many Americans. When too many people consider Medicaid their permanent health care plan, for instance, all of health care has to be restructured so that there will be enough people paying into the system to cover those who don't. The problems with Social Security could get their own blog post, too. So--what if an ever-widening pool of more or less permanent food stamp recipients becomes part of our new economic reality? Will the government start to set food prices, as they did health care prices with Medicare? Will stores start charge "cash" customers more to offset what they loose to food stamp payments? Will we have, as we did with Medicare, two distinct groups of food consumers: those who pay for their food plus the food of others, and those who never pay at all?

I know that as a Catholic, my impulse here is to say: feed the hungry; the rest is details. But it isn't quite that simple. If we tax families to feed the hungry so that then the families have to go on the food program too, eventually we run out of people paying in to what started out as a safety net. There are some issues of justice and responsibility, here, too.

But on the other side of things, we know that we aren't paying anything like a living wage to those families at or near the poverty line. Some of that has been the economic impact of things far outside of those families' control, like outsourcing jobs so that American workers have to compete with third-world workers making a fraction of what American workers earn, or failing to come up with a workable border control solution that, while not throwing to the wolves everybody illegally enticed here by our own companies looking to save money, would stem the flow for the future, and other things of that nature.

The pro-life thing to do is to see to it that families in crisis have enough food, and never have to choose between the life of an unborn baby and the needs of those children already born--something that crisis pregnancy centers around the nation are superbly terrific at doing, though they can always use our help, prayers, and generous financial donations. But another pro-life thing to do may be to consider what long-term policies we need to enact to make sure that there is enough work for Americans, and that the government's emergency fund for groceries will stay just that: a temporary help to get a family through a crisis situation, not a permanent consolation prize for those whose jobs were lost in the "global economy" gamble.

UPDATE: Pat Buchanan writes on this topic.


Deirdre Mundy said...

I think one huge problem with taxing to provide these benefits is that it actually makes us less charitable to our neighbors.

It's the subtle, nefarious difference between alms and taxes.

Alms are freely given. They're given in love. Feeding the Hungry is a work of Mercy.

Taxes are taken. One cannot love the government. The government cannot show Mercy. It cannot choose to love and to do God's will - the government does NOT HAVE A SOUL.

Liberals like to complain about 'souless corporations.' They forget that the government is souless as well.

Ideally private charity would replace food stamps. Practically? I don't know how we get from here to there... but I think it's a conversation we ought to be having.

L. said...

"...our refusal to protect American jobs and American industries."

Unless they truly consume 100% American-made products and American-grown food, most people are part of this "problem."

Viva globalization! Down with protectionism! I will happily buy a shirt sewn in a Cambodian factory, if it means the factory workers' children will get food and medical care.

There is nothing wrong with buying local, and spreading as much of your wealth as you can in your own community. But global imbalances result when countries adopt protectionism -- look at what China is doing. They are only protecting their economy, but they're hurting the world in the process.

(Sorry, I will shut up and go away now.....)

Anonymous said...

"But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary." - James Madison,
The Federalist #51

Dymphna said...

In America up until the last few yeasrs most of the people on assistance are there by their own folly or improvidence but now, it could happen to anybody.

Anonymous said...

about people who consider medicaid to be their permanent health plan--

put yourself in my situation: my husband has a decent full-time job, but his employer pays nothing toward insurance premiums. nothing. to insure our large family, it would cost hundreds of dollars a week. most people at his workplace have had to get rid of their health insurance since they stopped paying toward the premiums a couple years ago.

we all know that now the advice "oh just get a better job" is crap. there are no jobs, let alone good ones.

i guess we should have just used birth control so we wouldn't be "permanent medicaid users".

priest's wife said...

Thanks for this post- I tend to stay far away from politics (except for voting)- Your blog and Abigail's Alcove inspired this post- you might find it interesting (yet simplistic perhaps?)

The Cottage Child said...

@anonymous...don't be defensive, but do be aware that there are (for now, anyway) alternatives to publicly funded health care, for far less than what you might anticipate paying. It requires research (I'm happy to share mine, email me if you like) and probably some additional paperwork, and yes, more work. But it is the better portion.

No employer owes anyone insurance - that's an unholy alliance facilitated by a political agenda that has amounted to indentured servitude for many Americans. No freedom, there.

I'd like to help you. It's my Christian duty, in fact, and I'd be honored to do it. Email me, if you like.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I drop by this post only to applaud your distinction between the "truly pro-life person" and "some Republicans, especially the 'fiscal conservative' sort." Some of the louder "pro-choice" voices deny the distinction, but it is real.

Deirdre, you are correct that government is just as soul-less as a corporation. In fact, the corporation is a creature of government, existing by government fiat and license. There would be no such thing without legislation to authorize its existence.

I think the best a representative government can do is tie a corporation up tight so it doesn't tread on the liberties of all of us individual persons, and then, we are responsible to use the resulting freedom wisely. I do favor safety nets, but that's a place to land softly without hitting the ground too hard.

Anonymous said...

I'm not someone who generally buys into the notion that if you're going to complain about something, you should offer a solution as well (maybe because I like to complain a lot, heh) but what exactly are people supposed to do?

The elites in both parties have worked their darnedest over the decades (presumably unintentionally) to destroy our country, the left, socially (which also hurts us economically) and the right, economically (which also hurts us socially) (speaking very broadly and with numerous exceptions, good and bad in either direction, of course).

So now we're a consumer economy with fewer consumers, while simultaneously becoming a society ever more antagonistic toward a social safety net, at the same time when more of our countrymen are becoming dependent upon it.

At any rate, now we're going to get the worst of both worlds with our soon to be new overlords, the "fiscal conservatives". Sure, we'll have plenty of money for wars, weapons systems and tax cuts, but not for fiscally irresponsible things like food stamps and social security.

Why can't we have an anti-imperial, pro-life, pro-social safety net party? Sort of a Ron Paul meets Pat Buchanan meets Dennis Kucinich..or does that sound like a nightmare to most people, lol?

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to reiterate that I was painting with a broad brush. Firstly, I'm not an economist, so what do I know? and also, I know that people, of all political leanings, are individuals are not caricatures.

MightyMighty said...

I have a real issue with Obama's promise for a "safety net below which nobody could fall." Hmmmm....nobody? What about people who can't be bothered to support themselves unless they are facing hunger and eviction? The media has created this image of the average welfare recipient as someone who is just down on her luck. In reality, the average welfare recipient is someone who chose to have children out of wedlock, chose to not give them up for adoption, and thus give them the best start in life, and is choosing to not find a cooperative situation with another single parent where they could work opposite hours and not lose money to childcare. "It's not worth their while to work at Wal-mart and spend the same amount they're earning on childcare." Yes, it is called MARRIAGE. So you don't have to do it alone.

And the reason there are no jobs? This bizarre notion that the government can tax 50% of what a company makes (via taxes on profits, property, social security, mandated wages/benefits, etc.), assume none of the risk, and then tax the company again upon sale, and the estate upon the owner's death, and that after taking 75% of what the business owner earned through their own work, risk, and creativity, other people will still want to risk starting new businesses or hiring new employees. You can't tax a business, just the people who run it and earn from it.

If you left businesses alone, wages would rise to the point where workers could afford their own health insurance if they wanted. It's worth noting that the real livable wage of Americans only improves under "generous tax cuts", or what would be better labeled, "partial removal of excessive taxes." Tax cuts implies that the government is being magnanimous, when it isn't their money in the first place.

Also, if you removed the federal regulations around health insurance, and allowed companies to tailor their plans to niches, and especially if you allowed interstate trade of policies, you would do to health insurance what Reagan did to phones (think AT&T monopoly 1980 --> cheap cell phones that can browse this thing called the internet 2010).

It's no use pretending that the government makes a good nanny or a good philanthropist. You can't really be philanthropic with other people's money.

Also, I totally agree that being taxed to death makes it harder to be generous with alms. Since we lose about half of our income to the various taxes and fees levied on us, we have way less money left over for anything else, let alone giving to the same recipients of our tax dollars. (Which is why I tend to focus my dollars on pro-life things, since they sure aren't getting any help from taxes, unlike Planned Herodhood.)

Siarlys Jenkins said...

In reality, there is no "average welfare recipient." There are a great number of individual circumstances, some more appealing than others, some more shady than others.