A Safety Net, not a Hammock

I said this – “People need a safety net, not a hammock” – to a group of friends in Seminary in the early 1980’s, and you would have thought I had slapped their mothers. We were a fairly liberal group, and we were discussing the welfare system in America. I was the only one who had personally experienced living on welfare (or at least, who would admit to it), and my opinion was that some people, especially those who had had generations of government aid, needed help in learning how to work. Getting free money – and nobody was getting rich this way, mind you – from the government can lead to dependency on that source of income. I came across this attitude again in the early 1990’s when I served in an inner-city church in Cincinnati and led a program called “The Breakfast Club”. These 8- to 10-year-old boys I was working with were really poor, and they watched their families struggle all the time. And yet, when I asked them about their future, many of them would say that they could always get free money from the government. I continue to see this kind of thinking in the city I serve in now. Chronic needs can’t be fixed by nickels and dimes. Poverty is far more complicated than that.

Poverty cannot be solved by welfare programs alone, nor can it be solved by telling people to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”, especially if they don’t have boots in the first place. I don’t pretend to know the answer; as Jesus said, we will always have the poor with us. I don’t He meant this was a good thing. Learning how to work, though, is often necessary for someone to succeed. People in poverty need a safety net that should assist them to find ways out of their situations. This is why I believe in 2 years of free community college or trade school. That is equity, and it would help our country in the long run. And yes, there is always a need for food and rental assistance, especially at the end of the month. Our church has an emergency pantry and fund, and we help a lot of the working poor get by until their next paycheck. We also need to acknowledge that housing costs as a percentage of income have increased dramatically over the last 50 years, while wages have not kept up. My parents paid a lot less, percentage-wise than I have, and I spend a lot less than my 20-something children do. This needs to be fixed, and the free market isn’t doing the job.

Andrew Carnegie (yes, THE Carnegie) wrote a book called “The Gospel of Wealth”, a fascinating little read that will surprise you. Carnegie is believed to have given away 90% of his wealth for the public good, and he wrote that any parent who leaves all their money to their children is a fool. He believed in hard work and wanted his children to develop the same work ethic he had. To be fair, even 10% of Carnegie’s wealth was more than I can imagine, but his point makes sense, no matter what your circumstances. Nobody makes it on their own, and there are many people who have advantages that others don’t. From generational wealth to legacy education, the upper class in America has privileges that most of the population doesn’t. And yet, there are millions of success stories out there to prove that even people who start out like me and my siblings can be successful. None of us can do this alone, so we need a safety net. But not a hammock. Being able to work hard is a blessing and a gift. And it’s good for all of us, collectively, to contribute to the greater good. We are called to help others so they can help themselves – and then help others in the future.

Prayer – We come to You with thanks, especially if we have been lucky enough to have had advantages in life that have made our road easier than others. Help us to remember to give a hand to others in need so that they can pay it forward. We are in this together. Amen.

Today’s art is called “Helping Hand” by Linda Carmel.