There is no debate that Christians are called to care for the poor and hungry. When Jesus said “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me … whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me,” he made it clear that caring for those in need is not optional. How we do so, however, is a more contentious issue. For some, obeying this command means forming a “Circle of Protection” around federal government entitlement programs.
Since the federal budget debate began to heat up in the spring and summer of 2011, a group of religious activists formed a “Circle of Protection” with the purpose of lobbying President Obama and Congress to avoid cutting funding for welfare programs. Recently, Bread for the World president David Beckmann spoke to a group of “emergent Christians” about “changing the politics of hunger.” On June 20, at small gathering of Washington, D.C. based “emergent Christians,” he discussed how Christians can end world hunger by influencing “the most powerful institution in the world:” the United States government.
Beckmann explained his view that Christians ought to care for the needy in their community, but also they should make sure the government is “leading” the effort to solve poverty and hunger. To accomplish this, he stressed the importance of contacting representatives in Congress and telling them to protect entitlement programs. It is not enough, he claimed, for churches and local institutions to address these needs. He cited statistics that found if Congress made the proposed cuts to the SNAP program (food stamps), every church in the US would have to provide $50,000 each year to “fill the gap.” Beckmann stated: “it’s just not possible.”
There is evidence, however, that the growth of government programs crowds out private charitable giving. Thus pruning back some of the 70 or so federal assistance programs would yield more private giving. As taxes increase to cover spending, tax credits for charitable giving decrease, and government money flows to non-profit organizations, private giving shrinks. A Cato Institute report states:
Charitable giving declined dramatically during the 1970s, as the Great Society programs of the 1960s were expanding. The decline in giving leveled out in the 1980s as welfare spending began to level out and the public was deluged with news stories about supposed cutbacks in federal programs. Then, after the passage of welfare reform in 1996, there was a large spike in private giving.
Beckmann lamented that “very little progress has been made against poverty and hunger” in the US over the past few decades. This, he explained, is because ”we haven’t had a president who’s made the effort” to address hunger since President Lyndon Johnson launched the “war on poverty” in the 1960s. Unfortunately, he said, every administration since Johnson has prioritized other issues ahead of solving poverty and hunger. Beckmann admitted: “The federal government can’t solve all the problems,” but it can “provide a framework” for others to follow. Further, he said “the states cannot do it [address poverty] without the federal government. The federal government has real power and authority and we have to use that.”
Another major concern with public assistance programs is the risk of dependency. When asked about how to provide a safety net that adequately helps people in dire situations, yet requires them to seek self-reliance as a long-term solution, Beckmann said: “The dependency issue is a real concern.” With only anecdotal evidence, he claimed: “No one who’s on food stamps wants to stay on food stamps. There are probably some exceptions, but we could ere more on the side of handing out more help.”
Too often, however, faceless federal programs do engender dependence resulting in negative social consequences, and they rarely (if ever) solve poverty. Without providing the accountability and tailored assistance that local community charities can offer, one-size-fits-all federal programs are both a consequence and cause of many of the social problems they attempt to address. For example, it is commonly noted that certain welfare eligibility requirements discourage marriage, thus increasing the number of single parent (most often single mother) homes. Looking at this side of poverty, it is clear that the real issue is not a mere lack of material goods, but a deep social and spiritual breakdown.
Even still, Beckmann told the group: “As Christians, we should do what we can to make sure the government is doing what it should” to solve poverty and hunger. But no matter how effectively Christians encircle and “protect” government programs, the federal government is not capable address the deeply personal and spiritual needs of the poor, and ultimately, solving poverty.