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Thursday, May 3, 2012

An Open Letter to a Friend Regarding Poverty

Friend, I would like to respond regarding the view that the war on poverty is an inappropriate activity for the federal government. It seems to me that anything worthwhile in life comes with both positives and negatives. Certainly, “the welfare state” is one of them. I am thankful for the nonprofits and charities that bless our country with generous assistance to the needy. I am thankful almost as much for the spirit of generosity and what that implies as for the assistance itself. But like the welfare state, overwhelming reliance on charities to provide assistance for the needy also comes with some minuses.

It seems to me the primary negative encountered with reliance on the welfare state is not so much the fact the needy must meet eligibility requirements and thus attain entitlement, but the selfish attitude of entitlement that sometimes results. (And I should add that neither do I find attractive the attitude of entitlement sometimes displayed by the privileged.) On the other hand, when relying on private charities, the lack of entitlement to funding for those living on a subsistence level can create great uncertainty, anxiety, and privation.

The war on poverty did not begin in a vacuum. It developed because the needs of the impoverished were not being met. Since it was in the vital national interest to assist those in poverty, the federal government stepped in to fill unmet needs. There is much precedence for government action of this type.

The state regularly and traditionally becomes involved when vital needs are otherwise not being met. For example, consider the need for education and the establishment of public schools. Certainly one could argue that public education is inappropriate state action; there should only be private schools. Those children who could not afford private school could be sponsored through scholarships from private non-profits, charities, and the generosity of friends. While theoretically this makes sense, it seems likely that reliable funding of scholarships could not be counted upon for everyone. Security is another vital state interest. Theoretically the police power of the state could be funded entirely by voluntary contributions. But this is never done for obvious practical reasons.

While the well-healed are adept at advocacy, the poor usually are not. It is remarkable that the war on poverty legislation was ever passed in the first place, and it may well be reversed in time. What is undeniable is the existence of children in poverty living under conditions of great uncertainty and instability. Given millenniums we probably all can foresee the effective end of poverty; but the question always remains—what to do today?

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