WHAT DO WE OWE THE POOR?
John Berry, CEO, St. Vincent de Paul Georgia
Earlier this month, syndicated columnist Michelle Singletary wrote a column entitled ‘What do we as a society owe the poor?’ It was a very well written and thoughtful opinion on the differences in the answer to that question that exist today. On one hand there are those, I count myself among them, who feel a moral and religious obligation to help those in need through formal anti-poverty programs and feel that these programs should be funded, in part, by government. Others feel that they should not be forced to fund programs that are often inefficient and ineffective and which obligate them through taxation to support something they may not believe in.
Singletary acknowledges that not all people receiving support from formal programs are blameless in their need. She states:
“Advocating for anti-poverty programs does not mean you don’t recognize that some people getting help made poor choices. It doesn’t mean you absolve them of personal responsibility. People shouldn’t have children they can’t support. Retiring and then recklessly spending down your money is bad money management. But helping the destitute is the decent thing to do.” (Washington Post, April 4, 2017)
This is the penultimate question that drives much of the division in how we look at the poor and those who need our help. Do we have the right to ask the question, ‘Are they deserving?’ or are we obligated by our moral core values as a society to help people in need?
For the last ten and a half years I have been the CEO of a faith-based charity that is committed to supporting those in need. In those long years of leadership, the challenge that I have faced more frequently and with more intensity has been addressing those who want to judge, who want to question the ‘legitimacy’ of the need of people who come to us for help.
This question goes to the heart of what we believe Society to be. Are we a collection of people bonded by a common commitment to the principles of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ – but only if you don’t screw it up? Or are we a collection of people bonded by our Judeo-Christian (and Islamic, and Buddhist, and other) religious beliefs that we have an obligation to help those who are worse off than ourselves, without judgement or condemnation?
Singletary answers her own question by writing:
“What do we as a society owe the poor? We owe them empathy. We owe them a safety net that gives them a chance to get back on their feet — and maybe even survive.” (Washington Post, April 4, 2017)
And then she ended her column with a statement that I could have written myself. It is exactly spot on:
“I spend a fair amount of time working with people living below and just above the poverty line. And this I know: It’s no picnic being poor. They didn’t consciously choose to be poor. They didn’t willfully walk into poverty with open arms. They stumbled there.”
But I would add one last line: “And when they stumble, we have an obligation to help them get back up.”