Georgia’s food stamp program provides an interesting case study for thinking about the current debate surrounding social welfare. In good fiscal news Georgia has seen a sixteen percent drop in food stamp usage over the last four years, saving tens of millions of dollars each month for taxpayers. As the economy continues to strengthen and unemployment decreases, more people can come off the food assistance program. Yet, to get back down to pre-recession usage levels nearly another 700,000 people would have to drop out of the program. Since the food stamp usage rate is still high in spite of the economic recovery, policymakers in Georgia are questioning whether some recipients are taking advantage of the system. To combat any such fraud Georgia is implementing a work requirement provision that limits able-bodied adults without dependent children to three months of food stamps within a three-year period. However, they may continue in the program if they get a job or meet other similar requirements. In related news, President Trump’s proposed budget has targeted the food stamp program for twenty-five percent cuts totaling $192 billion over ten years.
Debate over the social welfare program has fallen along predictable lines. Conservative lawmakers want to protect taxpayers from the fraud of otherwise able-bodied adults who are too complacent to work. Progressive activists want to protect those citizens with mental and physical health impairments and limited education. Christians who want to love their neighbor well should realize that both sides are likely speaking truth. Because we are dealing with a large swath of our populace, the issues in social welfare programs are never simplistic. Some food stamp users could work, but do not, and thus they fraudulently force their neighbors to foot their food bill. On the other hand, some cannot work and may even lack the means to prove to the state why they cannot work. Discernment is needed both to help those who genuinely need it and to protect the helpers from fraud and theft. Several questions arise.
Should we be helping? Conservatives often champion the individualism of the rugged self-made American, and not without some good reasons. Diligence and personal responsibility are biblical ideas. But Jesus said the poor will always be with us, and the Bible is chock full of exhortations, admonitions, and instructions about caring for the poor. We are not to close our hearts to a brother in need (1 John 3:17). Well wishes with no action does no good (James 2:15-16). We are to look out not only for our own interests, but also for the interests of others (Phil 2:4). Solomon reminds us that being generous to the poor is lending to God (Prov 19:17), while Moses relays God’s command: “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land” (Deut 15:11). So Christians should care deeply about helping the poor.
Whom should we be helping (and not helping)? This question gets at the heart of the current controversy. Conservatives want to narrow the number of people who receive assistance, while asking too many questions makes progressives nervous. The widows list in 1 Timothy 5 provides some biblical precedent for limiting enrollment in social welfare programs. Even among those who had real needs certain qualifications had to be met. To be enrolled in the widows program a woman had to meet a minimum age requirement, be known for her good moral character, and to have previously rendered service to the church. Granted, the church widows list does not compare one-to-one with our government food stamp program, but we can glean several principles. First, we are allowed to make distinctions and place restrictions on who may receive programmatic assistance. Second, priority should be given to help those who truly need it and have no other recourse. Paul’s restrictions ensure that the widows program provides for those that are true widows. Women with other means of support (e.g. family) are not eligible to receive benefits. Georgia’s work requirements seem to be a reasonable restriction in line with 1 Timothy 5 principles and an application of Paul’s instructions elsewhere: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess 3:10).
Who should be doing the helping? Notice that Paul put the qualifier “willing” in the above verse. Not everyone who does not work is not willing to work. This is why Georgia’s work requirements focus on able-bodied adults. But who gets to define able-bodied? Discerning the legitimacy of needs requires intimate knowledge of the person because every person’s situation is different and many are complex, fraught with uncertain cocktails of sin, mental illness, and circumstances both within and beyond one’s own control. It doesn’t seem that a large bureaucratic state is well-equipped to deal with the nuances of varying individual contexts. Instead it must make sweeping rules that simultaneously open the door to fraud and slam the door in the face of the legitimately needy.
Going back to 1 Timothy 5 we find concentric circles of responsibility for caring for those in need. If family is available to help, the family must help first so that the church is not burdened. True widows—those with no family at all—are to be cared for by the church. Though beyond the scope of Paul’s letter, it may permissible that the larger society provides care through a governmental program, but this should be reserved for the more dire cases where no such familial or religious networks are present. Such a restrictive arrangement would be foreign to today’s system and would require us to forgo outsourcing familial and social responsibilities to the state.
What other issues are at play? Whenever someone suggests that private organizations would be better suited to care for the needs of the poor, progressives point out how many hundreds of thousands of dollars churches would need to raise to cover the costs. Here we should point out two things. First, our current social welfare programs find their origins in voluntary, private Christian charitable organizations. We forget that only later did the state take over such programs with its usual efficiency. Second, if we had fair and just taxation, then our citizenry would have much more money with which to be generous to the poor and do actual good. Instead, we have excessive taxation, which is theft. We use stolen money to care for the poor and then wonder why we have a broken system. And this goes to the more important point. At almost every level of society we are rebelling against God’s Word, yet we desire a society that is full of prosperity with minimal amounts of suffering. We want all the sin and none of the curses. We want all the blessings and none of the obedience. We want the benefits of the Gospel without the Gospel. We want the favor of God, but we don’t want God.
And so we will continue with a broken welfare system until God grants us repentance.