One of the more pervasive conservative talking points is the idea that government perpetuates poverty by giving handouts. To quote a recent Times Free Press commentary by a local Republican, "A dependent class finding sustenance from government is politically advantageous to some; it's destructive to those seeking to be independent, pursuing competition and success."
In other words, if one works hard, good things will come to you. Mooch off the government, and you are destined to fail. Such a sentiment would be true in a society where upward mobility could be achieved on an equal playing field. The problem is that we may be equal in rights, but not in the circumstances in which we are born.
I am once again reminded of my stepsister who passed away last January. Judy worked hard all her life, but never had health care, a mutual fund, a pension or more than a few dollars in the bank. She died relatively young, having never owned her own home; her life lived from one paycheck to another. Though we were related by the marriage of her mother to my father, our lives could not have been more different. I was in college when our parents married. Judy was working for minimum wage.
Our respective mothers determined our individual fates. Judy's mother never went past the second grade and was indifferent toward education. My mother was self-taught, but she believed that my future could only be secured through learning. I remember her soft voice reading with me from the Children's Classics before I was 5. I had a relatively high IQ. Judy's was low average. I went to college on a full scholarship, while Judy barely graduated from high school.
Even though my mother was only in my life for 11 years, her influence laid the foundation for my future. Without an education, I could never have become a Marine officer, which in turn gave me economic security and lifelong health care. I also could not speak for Judy and others like her in this commentary. Judy, on the other hand, received no encouragement to better herself. Her mother asked my father once in reference to me, "How long is he going to go to school?" Consequently, Judy inherited her mother's life of barely scrapping by.
Years ago, I visited Judy in her government-subsidized apartment. I was struck by how neat and clean the place was. She told me that she had to go on welfare to get the apartment. It hurt her pride to quit her job, but her wages were not enough to pay for rent and day care for her child. She supplemented her government check by doing laundry and cleaning houses for cash. I wrote her a check and told her to use it for her daughter. The check was never cashed.
Contrary to the stereotypes perpetuated by many conservatives, Judy was not lazy, nor happy to receive a handout. She had pride and wanted to be self-reliant, but simply did not have the means to achieve it. She was a kind and gentle woman of innate dignity and decency born into circumstances not of her making. It wasn't her fault that she wasn't born with talent or the intellect to compete and to a mother who believed school was a waste of time.
I think of Judy whenever I hear or read that the poor are being deprived of their self-reliance by the so-called "Nanny State." It is hard to believe that affluent people living in comfortable homes in the suburbs begrudge the paltry amount of their taxes that pay for less than $5 a day worth of food stamps for a poor family. If the government won't help these people, who will? Are the millions of poor supposed to line up at the local food banks? Will the local megachurch pay their heating bills? Is the local television station going to hold endless coat drives to keep their children warm in winter? Perhaps their children can beg on the streets as they do in Third World countries.
Self-reliance is great if you are born into it. For Judy and millions like her, it remains elusive. The government is not just a behemoth entity that taxes, dispenses justice and fights wars. The government is us. If we are truly a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, then it is our social contract to help those in need. This is not socialism or liberalism. It is simply the decent thing to do.
Thomas Lloyd is a freelance writer and retired Marine officer. He resides in North Chattanooga.