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Is Welfare Compassionate?

Many of our current economic problems have their roots in the moral crisis of our day. In these times of moral turmoil many have mistakenly equivocated government sponsored welfare with the virtue of compassion. Compassion is an adjective frequently used to describe state supported social programs. The question needs to be raised: Is State welfare truly compassionate? Are we really serving the human needs of the people with state handouts?

The theory behind today’s welfare state is that people need material provision. Without denying the fundamental importance of material provision, we cannot forget other aspects of human life. In our minds we have reduced all giving to material giving. One result of this materialism is our belief that the more money we allocate for specific programs the more compassionate and person-centered we are as a nation. What we fail to see is that material provision apart from spiritual values is insufficient, empty and not truly compassionate.

For example, if faced with a single woman with children who is experiencing severe financial difficulty, is it right and truly person-centered for our collective response to be sending her to an impersonal government building, having her stand in line, fill-out forms in triplicate and then wait for the processing of a check? Does anyone in this process address the woman’s fear? Has any one really reached out to her? Where is the broader concern for her family’s genuine welfare? Giving her a check and sending her on her way is not a humane response. Compassion literally means to share in someone’s passion, to stand with someone in their time of crisis. Are we really standing with this woman who needs more than our dollars?

More often than not there is a deeper story to someone’s economic difficulties. Economic poverty is often accompanied by other forms of deprivation. Is this woman experiencing economic hardship due to a recent divorce? Does she have an adequate education and/or job skills? Does she have anyone other than a civil service clerk behind a government counter to stand with her in her difficulty?

Large government agencies are neither necessary nor sufficient for the exercise of human compassion. Neither is it plausible to say that the obligation to Christian charity is fulfilled by having the central government administer a welfare state costing $350 billion per year. Real charity must reflect the diversity of the needy. Congressional committees and sprawling offices are not capable of adequately meeting the human needs of real people experiencing poverty.

True compassion requires the formation of private charities that can provide assistance to individuals right in their own communities. Smaller, less bureaucratic initiatives stand a better chance of personalizing the aid given. Such groups would not be limited to merely issuing checks but could tailor their efforts to individual cases. The American people’s charitable impulses are a firmer foundation for compassion than the federal government’s incompetence and expense.