Every time I think about welfare scenes from the movies Midnight Express and Mississippi Burning come to my mind.  Midnight Express purports to be a true story of the ordeals of a young American, Billy Hayes, in Turkey. The film manages to provide a totally stale and biased picture of the entire Turkish society. There is nothing good there, only complete evil and cowardice on the part of every Turkish character. It seems as if the whole of that society is predetermined by an evil that hovers around impregnating every Turkish soul. Every hero is a foreigner and everyone trying to do what is just is from afar. In Mississippi Burning, we have a similar absolutism: blacks are portrayed as totally helpless and scared victims, with a throng of white federal agents coming to the rescue. Blacks are pictured as a sorry bunch deserving pity, exhibiting no inner strength. They are dehumanized, afraid, and lacking in courage. If it weren’t for the mighty federal agents they might still be in bondage!

Unfortunately, this degrading picture is a common belief among leftists who think the federal government has always come to rescue  blacks and they in turn react to government initiative. Many assume that government relief, of one sort or another, has always been there to save blacks from every situation of need and federal laws are the answer to every ill.  Entrapped by an absolutely racist society that prevents them from advancing, blacks can only count on using the power of the federal government to counter the insidious thrust of local oppression. But, was welfare the norm for the survival of blacks in generations past? Is government assistance and state intervention a necessary aid we ought to make peace with? Because some federal intervention was good, federal intervention is now the cure-all medicine.

Far from bringing about the promised economic and social success, the liberal interventionist policies of the last 50 years have produced moral decay and the acceptance of squalor as a condition. Managing poverty and helping people be comfortable in their misery has become the main task of the government and many churches and non-profits. In effect, social science scholars tell us to simply get over it and accept welfare as a necessary reality: ‘There are many things about welfare that can be improved. However, we need to recognize that in a large, rapidly changing, urban, post-industrial society, we will always need a large welfare system. In other words, welfare is simply a condition with which we should make peace.’[1]  These attitudes, as Thomas Sowell tells us, have rightfully given modern liberalism a bad name: ‘The War on Poverty represented the crowning triumph of the liberal vision of society and of government programs as the solution to social problems. The disastrous consequences that followed made the word ‘liberal’ so much of a political liability that today even candidates with long left-wing track records have evaded or denied that designation.’[2] Even liberals now refuse to use the term, preferring to be called moderates, centrists, or progressives. And yet, the assumptions upon which collectivist liberalism is built not only remain but are rapidly gaining force. James H. Cone is paradigmatic of the way liberals frame the issue:

America is a nightmare for the poor of every race. In this land of plenty, there are nearly 40 million poor people who are trying to survive with little or no resources for their emotional and physical well-being. The Washington-based Community for Creative Nonviolence has estimated that as many as 19 million Americans might be homeless in less than fifteen years…This nation can find the scientific, technological, and financial resources to build spaceships to explore other planets, but it cannot provide food and shelter for its poor citizens.[3]

This statement brings forth all the cleverness and  power of the radical attack on America. First, it greatly exaggerates the plight of the poor and the vagrant.[4] A basic aim of the radical indictment always includes an exaggerated view of poverty assessed as being the direct result of injustice. Writing in 1991, Cone was expressing a widely held position about the number of homeless in America. During the Reagan years, the ‘plight of the homeless’ became a very effective political attack against greed and carelessness by a conservative onslaught.[5] Absent from Cone’s statement was a serious attempt to understand the nature of homelessness, the failure of government spending on shelters or ‘affordable housing’[6], and the personal responsibility side of the equation. As Rev. Stephen Burger stated in 1996: ‘Most homeless programs fail because they protect lifestyles that produce homelessness and neglect the moral and spiritual means to overcome it.’ [7] We know that the number of homeless individuals in America has been highly exaggerated. There is simply no reliable information placing the number of homeless persons in the millions.[8] Second, Cone yields readily to the typical assumption of collective ownership of means and government-focused solution of problems: as we have much money, we can find enough to solve the problem. America is indicted for the ‘nightmarish’ condition of those in need and the state [what he terms ‘the nation’] is presented as the solution.

This system of thought focused on ephemeral solutions based on institutional models, deviating from the former emphasis on individual categorization and affiliation. From a primary goal of restoring bonds of family and community, charity work moved toward material distribution and fighting for fundamental the transformation of our political system. Earlier, charity workers appealed to civic groups such as local associations or ethnic groups.  When all these efforts failed, charity workers focused on establishing bonds of togetherness with the needy, bonds that could last many years.  Charity workers were expected to exhibit a ‘personal willingness to be deeply involved.’[9] The goal of charity work was not to connect people to programs or to create programs; in fact, the goal was to help people avoid them.

I say that we are only a sorry bunch when we  relinquish to the last and most important task of the civil rights movement: an uncompromising affirmation of our individuality as persons and a commitment to take personal responsibility for ourselves.

[1] Philip R. Popple & Leslie Leighninger, The Policy-Based Profession: An Introduction to Social Welfare Policy for Social Workers (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 19980 p. 175.

[2] Thomas Sowell, “War on Poverty Revisited,” in Capitalism Magazine (August 17, 2004).

[3] James H. Cone, Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare (N Y: Orbis, 1991) p. 317.

[4] Although I will utilize the designation of homeless here, it is important to notice that it might convey in itself an externalist causal assumption.  A vagrant is a person in a situation of poverty who wonders from place to place. Such definition focuses on the objective situation of the person in view. A homeless person tends to convey the idea of dispossession; or of someone deprived of what ought to be his. The designation of homeless in itself tends to indict society for a personal lack.

[5] ‘Estimates on their number differ widely, from 250,000 to as high as three million. Whatever the correct number, a bipartisan effort is under way on Capitol Hill to provide immediate emergency aid for the homeless, and all this week events involving public officials and private groups in the capital have focused attention on the issue’ in “Washington Talk; The Homeless Become an Issue”, The New York Times (February 7, 1987).

[6] For a remarkable study on the failures of government subsidized housing see Howard Husock, America’s Trillion-Dollar Housing Mistake: The Failure of America’s Housing Policy (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003).

[7] As Rev. Stephen Burger told us in 1996, ‘There are more than 60 separate federal programs that provide some form of help. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) now operates homeless shelters and drug rehabilitation programs in every major city in the United States. But the rates at which the able-bodied homeless graduate to independence from these programs rarely raise above single digits’ in “Arise, Take Up Thy Mat, and Walk”, Policy Review (Hoover Institution, Sept/Oct, 1996).

[8] See Christopher Hewitt, “Estimating the Number of Homeless: Media Misrepresentation of an Urban Problem”, The Journal of  Urban Affairs (Vol. 18, Issue 4, pp. 431-447). Hewitt affirms that media bias and faulty research exaggerated the number of homeless in the 1980s. A fair number was between 300,000 to 500,000 homeless nationwide.

[9] Marvin Olasky, Renewing American Compassion: How Compassion for the Needy Can Turn Ordinary Citizens Into Heroes (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1997), pp. 50, 59.