Understanding the Underclass

Yesterday on “Break Point” we discussed an issue which I believe is at the heart of the debate over Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas: That the primary effect of welfare is to create an underclass of people chronically poor. While, at the same time, creating an army of politicians and bureaucrats who draw fat salaries by keeping the welfare machine running.

 

Which group do you think really benefits from the system? I’ll give you a hint: It isn’t the poor.

 

Welfare isn’t always a bad thing. Government should have a safety net to catch people when hard times hit and to help the disabled and genuinely needy. But the question is, What kind of help should government give? How can it help the needy without making them dependent?

 

If we go back in history to 19th-century America, we see a very different way to help the poor. Back then there were no government welfare programs. It was all up to the Church. As historian Marvin Olasky tells it, the Church at that time recognized two categories of people among the poor.

 

The first was called the worthy poor. People who were willing to work–even at odd jobs–in return for help. Who worked hard to get an education. Who were faithful to their spouses and children. Who stayed off drugs and alcohol.

 

These folks rarely stayed poor for long.

 

The second category was the unworthy poor. These were people who wanted a handout with no strings attached–no demands that they work or give up alcohol. Simply giving these people money seemed only to reinforce their irresponsible behavior.

 

What they needed most was to be held responsible.

 

Let me give you a modern example. Harry was an alcoholic who managed to survive on odd jobs and hand-outs. Eventually, it became clear that the hand-outs were just allowing Harry to continue his unstable life style.

 

A Christian charity worker told him: Harry, it’s time for you to take responsibility for your life. We can find you a job and a place to live. But if you aren’t willing to work, we won’t give you any more money.

 

Harry left the office in a huff. But after several weeks of scrounging, he thought better of it. He accepted a job, joined a church, and is putting his life together.

 

Calling people to responsibility–that’s the approach the Church used in the nineteenth century, and it works just as well in the twentieth. It’s the only approach consistent with the Christian view of our nature and our dignity as God-created individuals.

 

In modern America chronic poverty doesn’t stem from low wages or lack of opportunity. It stems from dysfunctional behavior–kids dropping out of school, unmarried teens having children, fathers deserting their families, abuse of drugs and alcohol.

 

This is what Clarence Thomas wants people to understand:

That helping the chronically poor doesn’t take a bigger welfare check. It takes a change in behavior–rooted in a change in values.

 

And changing values is a task for the Church. What would happen if the Church took back its historic role to reach out to people in need? The Church can distinguish between types of poor people–between those who’ve simply been dealt a tough blow in life and those whose poverty stems from dysfunctional behavior.

 

And Christians can reach out to each type with the right kind of help: to the one, emphasizing God’s love–and to the other, emphasizing God’s law.

(Harry’s story can be found in Virgil Gulker, Help Is Just Around the Corner (Mary Lake, FL: Creation House, 1988)
This is the forth of a seven part series on Clarence Thomas.


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