Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Should Entitlement Programs Be Cut?

If human beings have survival among our inalienable rights as citizens for whom both rights and duties apply, then we as a society must grapple with how sustenance can be guaranteed to those among us who are not meeting their own needs. I put it this way to highlight the lack of conditionality in the right. That is to say, if it is inalienable, then it is irrelevant whether the person is lazy or of a bad temperament.

 Sustenance or "extra" cash? Only one is a human right.   (Image source: timthethief.com)
To be sure, in 2 Thessalonians 3, the Apostle Paul  declares, “For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.” I suspect that many moderns, particularly in America, agree with Paul here. Unpacking the quote, I submit that a number of subterranean assumptions lurk just below the surface. We naturally assume that Paul was not referring to a woman who cannot work because she was so brutally gang-raped that she is mentally and/or physically unable to work. We assume the Apostle did not have a blind and mute old man in mind. Rather, we assume that the person is a deadbeat, seeking to have others work while he enjoys himself, or that the person has a pernicious personality and therefore cannot secure even a menial job because no one could stand being around him. The punishment we dish out against the deadbeat and the rude man is a death sentence, in effect.
That the rest of us might be engaged in self-idolatry in setting ourselves up as Judge goes without punishment in our convenient scheme. Our presumed entitlement to omniscience (all-knowing) goes under the radar screen. We presume we are fit to know why some among us do not meet their sustenance needs on their own in an interdependent modern economy, and we feel at liberty to pronounce judgment based on the motives of others that we presume to know. Perhaps the poorest among us should pronounce judgment on the rest of us! The unassuming poor in spirit could quote the following from Matthew (19:30), “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” This line refers to the Kingdom of God, which in crucial ways turns the world’s logic upside-down or ties it up like a pretzel so the worldly wise are confounded into fools even as they count themselves as clever.
The typical rationale made by those citizens among us who do not regard sustenance as an inalienable human right in a civilized society hinges on the assumption that charity can fill the gap. Even though human beings need at least one meal a day (many of us used to three!), the assumption here is that such a demanding requirement can be met by chance as people give to charity. The fallacy here lies in presuming certainty in something that is not.
Indeed, an examination of the giving pattern of the wealthy in America suggests that sustenance is not even a priority. According to the 2011 report of the American Association of Fundraising Counsel, 32 percent of the $298 billion given away by Americans went to religious organizations, 13 percent to cultural organizations, and only 12 percent to social services. It cannot be assumed that the bulk of the money going to religious and cultural organizations went directly to sustenance for the poor.
Furthermore, the Chronicle of Philanthropy indicates that the top five donations, totaling $190 million, in New York went to Columbia University’s business school, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation (for the building of an indoor cycling track). Not one of the top 49 gifts went to support social services explicitly, yet somehow charity can be relied on to bridge the gap in health-care, housing and food for those who would otherwise die without such sustenance.  Rarely if even do we as a society ask whether an indoor cycling track should be conditioned on the sustenance of every citizen (or legal resident) having been satisfied. A new terminal or runway is typically viewed, at least implicitly, as having an equal (or higher) claim on our resources, societally.
Were sustenance treated as an inalienable human right to which an explicit duty of citizenship would correspond, society would be more than an aggregate of individuals out for themselves. Lest we assume that no one would work if a basic security based on the value of solidarity were known to be met, personal ambition would doubtless show itself as going beyond a concern for mere sustenance. In other words, enterprise would not falter. We have no idea how it would feel to live life with a basic, or existential, security in knowing that if the worst were to happen to us, we would not starve or be homeless or go without needed medicine for want of voluntary charity by others. We have no idea how such a basic psychological security would permeate and thus impact society, not to mention something called "quality of life."

Instead of exercising statesmanship for the good of each other, we as a body politic make it harder on even ourselves than need be because we presume that such a basic security would be at our expense and undeserved by the beneficiaries. In other words, our selfishness is ultimately at our own expense, and society itself is held back in the process. In other words, we get the cities we deserve. The sad thing is that the perpetuation of the existential insecurity is so unnecessary and ultimately in nobody’s interest. Even so, we keep stumbling over ourselves in avarice so to keep what we have, and relatedly in fear that someone might possibly get something for nothing at our expense.  In our presumed omniscience, we conveniently assume that we cannot be wrong, and this seals the deal on our small fate.

Ginia Bellafante, “Bulk of Charitable Giving Not Earmarked for the Poor,” The New York Times, September 8, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/09/nyregion/bulk-of-charitable-giving-not-earmarked-for-poor.html?hp