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Subsidiarity, solidarity, and being a good steward

If you are friends with Catholic author Simcha (Somechop) Fisher on Facebook you may have seen the rather lengthy discussion about an essay by Pat Buchanan that questioned whether or not the income disparity between the "haves" and the "have nots" is really the crisis we are being told it is. He also stated that the standard of living now considered as dire poverty was considered normal middle class living in the not too distant past.

Well this got a great number of people all riled up. Quite a few of those who were upset are receiving government assistance of some kind and were highly offended that Pat Buchanan would suggest that they may not be as poor as they think they are.  There was all sorts of talk about how we needed to raise the minimum wage to guarantee that even the workers at McDonald's could support a family on their pay. 

I waded into the fray in the comments just briefly, but I did not think the Facebook comments could do the discussion much justice. This was especially true since a significant number of the commenters were incensed that anyone would question their need for assistance. Obviously anyone who would expect justification for their need for aid is a greedy, hard-hearted miser who has never experienced want and therefore has no understanding of what the poor are going through.

Pat Buchanan may have phrased his opinion in a caustic manner, but his perspective raises some good questions. Mainly, to what standard of living can individuals expect to be entitled? I wrestled with this question over Christmas when our parish put up a "Giving Tree". There were paper ornaments with very specific requests from families in need. You take an ornament, buy the specified gift, wrap it, and return it to the tree with the paper ornament serving as the gift tag. The gifts are then distributed to the appropriate family members.

As the deadline for turning in the gifts approached I noticed there were still several ornaments hanging. This is surprising since our parish is usually very generous and it is unusual for any request to be left unfulfilled. Then I looked at the requested gifts: One pair of Toms blue sequined shoes, size 6 1/2. A collection of latte and cappuccino cups for a Keurig coffee maker.  LL Bean silk skiwear base layer. That explained why these gifts had not been selected. That pair of Toms shoes runs $54. A Keurig coffee maker is an expensive way to get your daily coffee fix. To get both the top and bottoms of the silk underwear would run over $100. Doesn't it seem rather presumptuous when you are asking for charity to request such high-end items? I know many of the members of the parish can afford to give such expensive gifts and I know many did spend this much and more on gifts for the Giving Tree. There is no reason that those who are financially struggling are not worthy of such nice gifts. However, when such generosity is demanded it gives a bitter taste to the whole Giving Tree experience.

This brings me back to the Pat Buchanan article and the brouhaha on Facebook. Asking for an honest analysis of what is a necessity and the responsibility of government to provide and what is a luxury does not a priori indicate a lack of solidarity with the poor. Rather, it is part of being a good steward. Resources are limited. We will do the greatest good for the most people if we support only the necessities. It seems a bit like asking for blue-sequined Toms to demand that money be given to you based on your own perception that you deserve it. 

If I want to throw five dollars out of my pocket in the cup of a pan-handler without making a thorough assessment of his true needs I am free to do so. In fact, I often do this and figure God will sort it out. On the other hand, government programs are not run by freely given charity. Money is demanded from people via taxes and redistributed to others. It is only fair that these handouts be scrutinized closely. Programs that prolong the need for dependence on government assistance need to be transitioned to programs that promote independence. It is unfortunate that there is great wailing and gnashing of teeth from those on the government assistance rolls because they might have short-term pain on the road to long-term gain.

My first comment on the post was:
First of all, insisting on increasing the pay for minimum-wage jobs is too narrow. Not every job is meant to support a family. Food service, discount stores, etc provide starter job. You make a few bucks and learn what it means to be employed. You take on a part time job to pad the family budget. You generate some income while you are in school. Then you move on.

After the predictable complaints that the current economy offers no position to move on to I wrote:
That is true. I do understand the unemployment issues going on now. My college graduate son is still living with us and it has taken a year for him to get a job that pays well enough for him to start planning to move out. My son-in-law is also unemployed and looking. But forcing companies to raise their pay is going to hurt not help the economy making those jobs even more scarce. A mandated pay raise is a short term fix with long term consequences.Government meddling, not corporate greed is what is holding down the economy.


I teach at a community college. Every day I see students coming in, working hard, and succeeding. It is not a glamorous big name school to put on their resume but the price is right and they are getting the skills they need to be productive. For many, this is a second start, or maybe a third or fourth start. I am in awe of their perseverance. But I also see students with a sense of entitlement. It is not fair that they are getting a C for C-level work. They need a B to advance in their program so they tell me to make the course easier so they can get a B. Should I redistribute the grade points so that no one gets an A and everyone gets a B? I am all for making sure everyone has equal opportunities for success, but in a community of diverse talents, motivations, and priorities, there will be diverse outcomes.

So accepting that there will be some rich and some poor and some in between is not uncharitable or un-Christian. We should always be seeking to love our neighbor and lift him up spiritually and physically. We have both spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Solidarity with the poor means understanding that trickle-down economics alone will not meet everyone's needs. We are going to have to fill in the gaps. But subsidiarity and good stewardship demand that government handouts that do not foster independence and self-sufficiency must be minimized. 


lisa hutchinson said…
I worked with people on welfare and therefore am familiar with the system and its flaws. I understand that it was meant to be "temporary" quick fix; however, poverty is hard to fix quickly and I found it interesting that the system does not support higher education. Jesus said we will always have the poor with us but that doesn't mean we do not help but government assistance alone is not the fix. I recently wrote a post on poverty of spirit (, and it reminds me that truly we are all poor as everything we have comes from the Lord so we are called to be good stewards for it is not our own.

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