Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Who deserves it?

For some time now I’ve been trying to figure out the phenomenon that makes some people go absolutely ballistic at the thought of government programs that help the poor. This includes not only the traditional welfare, food stamps and disability payments but also universal health care. I’ve read dozens of blogs and hundreds of news articles; I’ve had countless conversations with people, in person and online, about it. Yesterday I finally had an epiphany.

The first thing I realized is that the emotion driving these reactions is fear. When the terms welfare state and socialism float around in a conversation, people begin to shriek in terror. It’s a primal emotion, easy to identify. So what are they afraid of?

I started looking for details in blogs, articles and conversations - tiny clues that might help me figure out where that fear is coming from and what the heck it has to do with these political issues. First I realized that the issue of government-vs.-privatism is not really the problem. The same people who scream in terror at the thought of food stamps and nationalized healthcare don’t mind having their taxes support the interstate highway system or the military, or local schools and public works.

Likewise, the issue of church-and-state is a smoke screen. Some people insist that it’s the church’s responsibility to take care of the poor but they have no problem with non-religious charities doing so as well, and may give their money to them as well. So it’s not about actually giving away the money, either. Then what is it about?

What is at issue here is control. If support for the poor and needy is in the hands of private institutions, they get to pick and choose who gets that support and they get to put conditions on it. If that support is in the hands of the government, the only requirements will be ink-and-paper financial statements. So what does that mean? What are people really scared of? They’re afraid this will happen:

Someone who doesn’t deserve it will get something that was paid for with my money.

That’s it, in a nutshell.

When that realization hit me, I was immediately transported back to Mrs. Weber’s 10th grade English class and a discussion of George Bernard Shaw’s work. Mrs. Weber introduced me to the concepts of the Deserving Poor and the Undeserving Poor, first enshrined in Queen Elizabeth I’s Poor Law of 1563. I still recall the lurching feeling in my stomach as my innocence crumbled away. I was crushed by the sudden awareness that many people used to believe, and many still do believe, that some of their fellow human beings don’t deserve to be helped.

I didn’t have to read between the lines in My Fair Lady to figure out who the Deserving and Undeserving Poor were in Victorian England. And I don’t have to read between the lines today to make that distinction, either. Of course, it varies from group to group and person to person, but from the comments I’ve seen in articles and blog posts, the greatest fear is that the following groups will receive government money: urban African-American and Latino people; immigrants, both legal and illegal, but especially Latinos; alcoholics and drug addicts; and Muslims. There is also a fear of supporting unwed mothers, particularly non-white ones. I’m sure there are other groups, as well, that some people don’t want their money going to.

Bear in mind, I’m no Mother Theresa. I have my own biases and prejudices. But I try to be conscious of my tendency to prejudge others who are different from me and not let that emotional response enter into my decision-making process. I don’t recall any of the great spiritual leaders saying you should ask for certain credentials before helping people.

I suspect that many of the people who are against these government aid programs can’t even admit to themselves why the idea frightens them so much. It’s hard to face our own prejudices, especially if we have strong spiritual or ethical standards which we publicly follow. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll look into that darkness and shine a light that dispels the shadows of bias and fear.

So where does this excursion into the unpleasant depths of the human psyche leave me? I’m not sure. It took enormous societal changes for some people to allow their tax money to pay for poor African-Americans to attend decent public schools (and many of them still don’t like it). I suspect it will take similarly profound changes before people are willing to consider certain ethnic and social groups worthy of aid and support.

But I have hope. That voice that said, “Love your neighbor” also whispers: “They are all your neighbors.”