Taking Responsibility for Welfare

Unlike many children here in America, my earliest memories are of Bucharest, Romania, a Third World country. Memories of homelessness and poverty are forever etched into my mind. I will never forget what it was like to live in a concrete house that flooded with cockroaches as soon as the lights went out or the time when my then best friend Francesca, a local gypsy, had to cut off all of her long black hair because of a lice problem. Although moving back to the United States lessened my contact with poverty and (thank God) cockroaches, I still saw the effects of living in less than ideal conditions. When my family moved to a more rural town in Colorado called Florissant, I once again came in direct contact with poverty. I found it shocking that so many people in Teller County live on welfare. These unfortunate people are held back from reaching their full potential, sometimes revoking their right to the pursuit of happiness in order to survive.

It would be unfair to blame anyone or any single factor for poverty. However, no one can consider themselves above the causes of poverty either. In Touch magazine recently shared a story that may or may not be entirely true, but it’s inspiring all the same. As the story goes, a London newspaper asked G.K. Chesterton to comment on the reason for the problems in the world. Chesterton replied, “Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, G.K. Chesterton.” In other words, each of us contributes to and is responsible for the troubling issues in our world. He also alludes to the fact that blaming someone else will only lead to negative repercussions.

Taking responsibility for the social issues of our time is the first step in solving them, but struggling families need assistance in learning how to take responsibility for their own lives. Monetary support is beneficial, but in order to receive help from the welfare program, people have to forego other things that may provide them with more life satisfaction. Hal E. Hershfield, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, recently wrote an article concerning the connection between income and happiness. He states, “Positive feelings . . . may be slightly influenced by income, but are more influenced by things like general temperament, the people you spend time with, and the types of activities that you do.” Hershfield’s research has been tested by others as well. The organization Employment for All states that “[e]mployment is crucial for people’s social integration, physical and mental health, well-being and self-realization . . . whatsoever your abilities and disabilities are.” Indeed, while money helps, people may reap more benefits from education, social skills, or appropriate job placement.

I asked a friend and Teller County resident, Carmen, how the government helps both her family and other families in her neighborhood. She explained a situation to me that helped me understand another downside of using government programs. People sometimes look down on those within the system. “[T]here’s a stigma against people who utilize these programs,” Carmen said. While it is easier to work with local case workers because they are friends and neighbors, these people also know “more about your financial status than a significant other does.” Because Florissant is a small town, people often run into each other. Carmen told me that it can be embarrassing to run into a case worker while simply out having coffee with a friend. Through circumstance, people are pushed into using government programs, but by social injustice, they are depreciated by others.

Welfare not only discourages the basic need of social integration, it also creates problems in other areas as well. Education, for example, is one of the basic needs after food and shelter. The same friend mentioned that “education in parenting and paying bills along with balancing a checkbook are something our schools don’t teach and are extremely important for each and every single American to fully comprehend.” Many welfare recipients are able and would like to take responsibility for their own lives, but they aren’t provided with the right tools.

liller 2Since the creation of welfare, many people have blamed the poor for abusing it, stating that the poor choose a lazy lifestyle over finding work. However, research proves that the word “abuse” may need to be replaced with the word “utilize.” In a recent interview, Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at Cato Institute, explains that many people living on welfare are simply choosing the option that makes the most sense. People often make more money living on welfare (in that they receive medical care, food, and shelter) than if they worked a minimum wage job. He states that even though there are people capable and willing to work, they choose not to because they realize that a minimum wage job cannot provide as much as welfare can.

This problem isn’t irreversible. Gawad Kalinga (GK), an organization that started in the Philippines, realized that impoverished people need opportunities to change their lives as well as the skill sets and knowledge of how to do so. GK realized that people are a great tool in pushing for innovation and creative solutions to the problems in our world. By encouraging entrepreneurship in developing countries and training impoverished people how to become self-sufficient, GK is paving a path to recovery.

One of GK’s mission statements reads as follows: “The GK Enchanted Farm is Gawad Kalinga’s platform to raise social entrepreneurs, help our local farmers and create wealth in the countryside. As we learned that the road out of poverty is a continuing journey and therefore, providing homes is merely the beginning, we also realized that our country is abundant with resources. . . .” Stopping at providing food and shelter for those in need limits the opportunities and benefits that can be shared by everyone. Furthermore, the segment that reads “realized that our country is abundant with resources” brings to focus two main points: that a lack of resources is not the problem and that through the resource of entrepreneurial ability, people can thrive off of their circumstances; they just need to be shown how.

Every able and willing person within a community can help solve the issues of poverty, but the responsibility rests not only on the shoulders of those who have enough to live comfortably, but also those living beneath the national poverty line. The poor cannot and should not take the blame for their condition, especially because a staggering number of them have crippling disabilities or addictions that compound their needs. But it is important to realize that the needs that give people happiness are just as important as financial stability. If GK teaches people of all ages how to live sustainably by using the resources in their country, we can do that here in America.

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The Coalition for the Homeless is an organization in New York that provides shelter for more than 3,500 people every day. It has “eleven highly effective direct-service programs” that help the homeless rebuild their lives. Homeless people come to the coalition with specific needs that the organization works to remedy through one of its services. The end goal is “long-term stability and self-sufficiency,” and the program has a proven success rate. Given resources like GK and the Coalition for the Homeless, America has no excuse for allowing poverty to exist, but Chesterton had it right. If I would like to see the world’s problems solved, whether they be in Romania or America, it is my responsibility to solve them.