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Why Government Isn't the Be All and End All
I tried to read Lori Smith's A Walk with Jane Austen last night. I really did. I wanted to like it, because I love Austen.

And parts of her book were beautiful. Basically, Lori is a 33-year-old single woman who took off to England for a month to follow in Jane Austen's footsteps and see what she could discover. And her conclusions are quite lovely. She talks about taking delight in the little things; how one doesn't have to live a big life to be significant; and deploring the high life.

But the first chapter I found difficult, because Lori complained about Christian conservatives. Now, I'm a Christian conservative, though I wouldn't fit everybody's mold of one. I'm not even American. I'm Canadian. I'm not your regular Pat Robertson Christian, and the whole "looking like we're perfect" thing has always been an anathema to me. In fact, I wrote To Love, Honor and Vacuum sort of as an antidote to this feeling in the church that we need to look like we have it all together as wives and moms.

However, what I find so difficult is that a lot of Christians like her, including those in my family, equate Christian conservativism with not caring about the poor.

(UPDATE: I'm afraid that I'm maligning Lori here as badly as I'm accusing her of maligning me. The truth is she didn't say anything specific about the poor; what she said was that she disliked conservative Christianity, and especially political Christianity; and she was passionate about social justice issues. I read between the lines there. If I was unfair, I'm sorry. So consider the rest of this post about others I know who do equate Christian conservativism with mean-spiritedness or stinginess).

I find that this betrays a complete lack of knowledge of economics and history.

My whole life is dedicated to the poor. The majority of my time is spent in raising money to send to an African orphanage. I've taught classes for pregnant teens here at home, and have always been involved in volunteering. But that is an entirely different thing from believing the government should get involved.

Caring about the poor does not mean that the government should do it. It means we should do it! We should sacrifice and we should share.

When the government gets involved, it introduces a poisonous dynamic. It leads to entitlement, and often creates dependency rather than encouraging dignity. But what bothers me is that people can't see historically how that happened.

Just look at the welfare reforms of the 1990s that the Republican Congress forced Clinton to pass. Social activists were screaming from rooftops that this would throw women and children out on the street. Over the next decade, though, poverty decreased and more families found jobs. In other words, cutting welfare reduced poverty, just like conservatives always said it would.

A similar thing happens on the world wide scale when it comes to Africa. I would never give aid to an African government, or even to a large NGO like UNICEF. I give it to small on the ground operations which are trying to promote entrepreneurism. Because ultimately, the thing that will break poverty is small business. Give them a helping hand, and you'll end poverty. Continue to dole out aid, and you'll create it. You also set up a situation where the government controls the aid and can use it to pit one ethnic group against another, which is never good in that part of the world.

It just seems to me like too many people don't know basic economics. But they sound like they're so superior to "conservatives" who just think everybody should be like them. What I always hear from my family is that "you can't expect everyone to have it together like you do. And we have to be there for those who don't." That's not what I think. But I do want programs that actually work, not just governments handing out money so we can feel good about helping, but that don't actually accomplish anything.

A perfect example would be Hurricane Katrina. The government came down and poured money at the problem like crazy. But in Houston and all across Texas, churches (and specifically conservative churches) mobilized to take people into their homes. The Astro Dome, which was supposed to sleep 20,000, was empty because the churches had taken the people in. And many of those people chose not to return to New Orleans, but to take the help offered them to find jobs in Texas and other neighboring states.

In other stories, the government is still doling out money for other Katrina victims to live in hotels. I read a story yesterday about two women who are still living in the Quality Inn, with a swimming pool and maid service, years after the disaster, and haven't really looked for work yet. Why should they? This is the type of thing conservative Christians say isn't good for anyone's soul. We are not meant to get handouts for free. But that doesn't mean we don't care about the poor. It means we do.

A similar dynamic is at work with single motherhood. People just didn't have babies out of wedlock until welfare was extended to single moms. That's when men started to feel like they could desert their girlfriends who got pregnant. And marriage went down the toilet. I know not everyone is going to marry, and you can't legislate morality. I don't think we should. But to economically encourage a family situation which is dangerous to all involved is ludicrous. I'm not saying we should cut off single mothers from welfare, but I do think welfare should be a temporary training ground to get a job. People shouldn't live on it forever, and then maybe fewer people would be cavalier about their family situations. My mother was single, not by choice, and she never took a handout. She worked hard, even while I was young and she was depressed, so that we could have a roof over our heads. It is possible. And she advanced up the ladder until she ended up an executive.

Welfare would not have let her do that.

I think the basic difference between a conservative Christian and a liberal one is that conservatives believe in results, not in policies that express our devotion to a particular group. We don't need policies to show that we love poor people; we just need to love them ourselves. And if a government policy which sounds good has been shown not to work, then we need to get rid of it.

My liberal relatives, on the other hand, believe that we must lobby the government to end poverty, even if it doesn't work well. It's part of showing our values and living our values, to ensure that the government expresses our values. The problem is that this is usually ineffective. But it's the heart that counts to my relatives, not necessarily the results. I know that's an oversimplification, but whenever I bring up the results of whatever they're advocating, they accuse me of not caring. The opposite is true! I do care. But that doesn't mean I think we should throw money at the problem. It means I think we should fix the problem. And those two are not necessarily synonymous.

So I wish that other Christians would stop tarring me with the idea that I don't care about the poor. I do. And I know they care about the poor, too. We just disagree on how to help. That's allowed. But please stop impugning my motives, because I don't think that's very Christian behaviour.

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At 10:43 AM , Blogger Tracye said…

Amen, sister!


At 11:23 AM , Blogger Tracey said…

It's amazing when how resourceful you'll become when you have to find a way...and can't expect others to bail you out...

We need programs to teach fishing...not just handing them the fish.

Have a program....plans...qualifications and expect people to follow them and if they are too lazy to even do that...I guess they are out...

I totally agree with you!!!!


At 12:32 PM , Blogger earthly jane said…

This post really spoke to me, particularly the whole welfare part. There's my family, husband, wife, 2 year old child. Dh and I work opposite shifts so we don't have to put dd in daycare, we both work full-time jobs and literally get nothing in the "help" department, even when my husband was laid off for 2 months. But there is my friend who has 3 kids, not married and doesn't work. She just got a habitat for humanities home, gets her health insurance for free, WIC, food support, cash support, fuel assistance, phone assistance...the list goes on and on.
It's awful. It just burns me. Because I'm married and work hard, when times are tough we get nothing. But if you have a litter of kids and never get married and don't work, things are handed to you.
Not that I would want to live like that, it's not right....ugh I can't even go into it. But you know what I mean.

Thanks for the great post!
ps I can't wait to get your book!


At 12:54 PM , Blogger Barb, sfo said…

You're absolutely right, and Tracey found just the right words in the comment. It's about helping people to BE RESOURCEFUL--teaching them and expecting them to do the best they can with what they have.


At 1:14 PM , Blogger Sandy said…

I couldn't agree with you more, Shiela.
So agree ...Caring about the poor does not mean that the government should do it!
Right on and excellent post!


At 1:42 PM , Blogger Terry said…

I don't know if you've read my post today but the relative in question accused me of not caring about the poor- just as you described. This was an excellent and articulate expression of th difference between liberalism and conservatism. It's about results.


At 4:51 PM , Blogger Catherine R. said…

Sheila, I hope you don't mind I just copied and pasted this post to my blog (with credit and links to you) because I like it so much. : )


At 7:39 PM , Blogger Katrina said…

I definitely agree with you! I may have to copy this onto my blog tomorrow too. =)
It irks me that some people struggle through life, but working while others lay around getting free money and doing nothing for it.


At 11:20 PM , Blogger Ashley C aka Kitten said…

Amen Sister! You say what I think! As a Katrina survivor, I totally agree about the problem with the way government just threw money at the problem. Don't get me wrong, our family accepted food stamps and Red Cross assistance - for the 6 weeks we were homeless and didn't have any income! Once we were back home and working, we took care of ourselves thank you very much! We were also very blessed to be part of a wonderful church that has done some incredible work helping others get their lives back together - all without government help. Love your blog - keep up the good work.


At 12:44 AM , Blogger Carletta said…

You have expressed my thoughts on this issue very well.

I have also been accused of not caring. However, I wonder, is it really caring when you keep throwing money at programs that best - don't work, and at worst - keep people in bondage? Is it really caring to encourage people to live in drug infested, crime ridden housing developments that we would not even set foot in?

My mother was also a single mom (also not by choice) who did not accept welfare. With the Lord's help, she made a nice life for us without government assistance.


At 3:41 PM , Blogger said…

I love your point here. We donate to something called World Vision. We sponser a child through them. What I really love is that our "spare change" (which is all we have really, times are tough) helps this child go to school. WV helps the families by teaching them a trade, or giving them seeds so they can plant food and sell it. It's really amazing what they do. The whole "teach a man to fish" sort of thing... rather than just doing it for them.

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About Me

Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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