I frequently wonder if the people who are against government-run welfare have spent as much time with the poor as I have.
I recognize how this sounds – but I grew up in a family of working poor, spend a great deal of my church ministry time with the homeless and mentally ill, and talk to the forgotten homeless during my daily walks through my city.
There’s a big difference between helping someone out a couple of times until they get on their feet, and spending months or years working with someone who may never get better.
My mom and stepfather had a hard time holding down a job. They were uneducated laborers and retail employees. There were also drug abuse issues. We moved a lot, sometimes into less than ideal living conditions. We shared houses with other families, too many people in too small a space, so we could get by. Even then, we frequently received help in the form of church assistance, food stamps, and welfare.
I went on a mission for my church. I was highly motivated to make my life better, and I was fortunate to meet people who helped me become more capable and better connected. I got student loans so I could go to college. From a financial and health standpoint, through church assistance and government programs, I’m in a much better situation than I was growing up.
Most of the chronically poor people I know aren’t lazy, stupid, or drug users. They have mental health issues. They don’t have coping skills. They are victims. And they are legion.
I once sat with a guy for two hours, holding his hand in the emergency room so that he wouldn’t try to rip his own nose off of his face. His mind had gotten wildly out of control. He got expensive medications from the state government to help him calm down. He lived in low-income housing, subsidized by the government. He can’t hold down a job longer than a few months because of his mental health issues. As a child, he endured years of abuse from his alcoholic father, with whom he no longer has contact.
Another time, my counselor and I took a homeless man to a nearby hotel because he was a 78 year old Navy veteran who didn’t have the mental wherewithal to get the VA benefits that he was entitled to, and he didn’t have family nearby to help him. It wasn’t safe to let him sleep in someone’s home, but we didn’t think he’d make it through the night on the streets. I later found out that there are counselors available to help him get the help he needs, funded by the VA. None of the local churches had anybody qualified to care for him.
When I first moved to Portland, there was a man in his early 60s who drank himself into liver failure. He was a mean, crotchety type, and his family wouldn’t see him. I was a counselor in my Elder’s Quorum then, and I went to visit him from time to time with my Elder’s Quorum President. I remember he was always so happy when we came to visit. He lived in a state-run hospice while he died. Right up to the end, his family refused to come until they had to collect his body.
Quite frequently, the work that I do in my ministry is simply being there as a friend. There’s not a lot else that I can do. My church helps many people financially – short term gifts of housing, food, and other assistance. We help people move in and out of the area. We take meals to new parents, and drive people to job interviews. We have a job-hunting training course and even a small-business startup mentorship program. We can provide mental health counseling on a limited basis through LDS family services.
But there are people that we just cannot help. The mentally ill. The chronically abused. The people abandoned by their families to suffering and pain.
I’m grateful that our society has seen fit to implement a social safety net. I frequently hear people say that we would be better off if there wasn’t so much dependence on the government. I see the government as the means by which we exercise our collective will, so when I hear people say that there are too many people expecting a handout, I want to say back to them, “what have you done this week to help someone who is poor?”
I’m not perfect by any means. I’m really not even that good of a person – simply someone who is sensitive to the poverty around me, who recognizes that our own efforts, and the efforts of our churches, are aided by our collective action as manifested by the government.