Humbug Compassion

Last week's balanced-budget debate was marked by the kind of inflammatory rhetoric that would have made the late Senator Joseph McCarthy blush. "Immoral" and "shameful" spluttered California Senator Barbara Boxer regarding Republican plans to cut programs for the poor. Senator Patty Murray of Washington called the plan a "Wizard of Oz budget: no heart, no brain, no courage, and no home." Well, that's a colorful sound bite, but is it true? When our legislators advocate balancing the budget, are they really turning their backs on the poor and disadvantaged? Boxer and Murray and their allies say yes. But the assumptions behind their philosophy—that only the government can and should help the poor—are, like the Wizard of Oz himself, nothing but humbug. Defenders of government charity would like you to believe that the money taxpayers target for the poor actually gets to them. But as a Heritage Foundation Report explains, more than three-quarters of that money actually ends up in the hands of what the poor cynically call "the poverty pimps"—bureaucrats who administer the programs. In 1990 the states and the feds spent $210 billion in anti-poverty programs. That comes to $6,270 for every man, woman, and child living below the poverty line. But the poor get only a fraction of that. Even if all this money did end up in the hands of the poor, it wouldn't eliminate poverty. As Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation points out, most hard-core poverty in the United States is what might be termed "behavioral poverty"—poverty that's a direct result of people making bad choices, such as having children out of wedlock or abusing drugs and alcohol. Throwing checks at these people simply reinforces the behavior that produced their poverty in the first place. That's one reason God assigned the work of helping the poor to the church, not the government. As Marvin Olasky explains in his book The Tragedy of American Compassion, government programs throw money at the poor but do nothing to show people a way out of poverty. By contrast, the biblical definition of compassion is "to suffer with." It's a personal commitment to serving "the least of these" in ways that will help free people from the patterns that enslave them. For example, churches might agree to take in a homeless alcoholic—but only on the condition that he attend Alcoholics Anonymous and look for a job. Or a family might agree to house a pregnant teenager—but only if she helps with the household chores and stays in school. Of course we still need welfare for people who are truly in trouble. But as much as possible, we ought to help the poor by finding ways to lead them out of poverty permanently. That's the true mark of compassion. And that's why the debate on balancing the budget isn't inconsistent with our commitment to helping the poor. So when you and I are accused—as we were by Senator Patty Murray—of lacking heart, brains, and courage because we want to balance the federal budget, we ought to explain the source of true compassion. It doesn't come out of a government coffer; it comes out of hearts committed to serving the "least of these."


Chuck Colson


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