Welfare Entrepreneur

Government records show that a Brooklyn woman is the proud mother of 73 children, giving birth under 15 different names, including Shirley, Jane, Patricia, and Celeste. This woman is definitely a candidate for the Guinness Book of World Records—not for the number of children she has borne but for breaking all records for welfare fraud. It turns out that she forged baptismal certificates and succeeded in cheating welfare out of nearly $450,000. New York City officials are still trying to determine her real name and the true number of her children. It seems obvious that anyone with enough ingenuity to finagle the government out of $450,000 is competent to hold a job—and shouldn't be on the dole in the first place. In fact, welfare reform primarily targets people who are capable of working but refuse to. And their numbers are growing. Lawrence Mead of the Kennedy School of Government says that until the 1960s, most poor people worked. Poverty was due largely to external factors, such as low wages, racial discrimination, and lack of opportunity. But today labor unions have pushed wages and benefits up, laws have outlawed racial discrimination, and in surveys only a fraction of the poor say they lack job opportunities. Instead, most poverty today seems rooted in the internal attitudes and behavior of the poor themselves. Chronic poverty tends to accompany dysfunctional life choices that undercut the motivation to work, such as dropping out of school, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, and crime. To deal with this new kind of poverty, we need a new approach to welfare. Or rather, an old approach. Nineteenth-century America suffered many of the same social pathologies plaguing today's inner cities. But back then the Christian church organized most charity work. Volunteers nursed the sick, housed abandoned women, helped the jobless find work. Church-based charity was nothing like the free handouts of the modern welfare system. Instead, all able-bodied adults were required to do some form of work. Homeless men chopped wood in return for dinner. Women sewed or cooked in return for a safe place to sleep. Teen mothers were taught to care for their babies and find a job. Drug and alcohol addicts were expected to sober up. This biblical approach to charity fostered responsible behavior. Instead of turning the poor into passive recipients, it granted them the dignity of doing worthwhile work. In 2 Thessalonians Paul writes that those who refuse to work should not receive free handouts. Paul wasn't being hardhearted; he simply knew that charity without obligation is demeaning. No matter how down-and-out people are, they're happier if they are making a worthwhile contribution. Politicians like to grandstand about reforming welfare, but you and I need to demand reform based on biblical principles of charity. We should not treat the poor as passive and incompetent but as talented people made in the image of God, capable of making an important contribution. Let's face it: If those talents are not channeled into constructive work, they're likely to be used for destructive and even illegal schemes. Like the Brooklyn woman who found ways to invent 73 children.


Chuck Colson



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