It is the duty of the Catholic Citizen to be charitable – indeed, it is the duty of all Americans. And in fact, the citizens of the United States have often proven themselves to be among the most generous and charitable people in the world. Our willingness to help those in need – both domestically and abroad – is apparent in our response as a nation in disasters ranging from Hurricane Katrina to the earthquake in Haiti to the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan. These are perfect examples of our charity – both as a nation and as individual citizens – of our acceptance of the virtue of giving. Many Americans realize that for those who have been given much, much is expected.
As the debate over America’s budget crisis grows, we see politicians and advocacy groups fighting over the nature of charity Unfortunately, many people are unwilling – perhaps unaware – of the fact that it is not merely the dollar amount, it is the nature of the assistance being offered. This is a subtle but important distinction – especially for Catholics. It is much easier to write a check or support policy than to reflect on the impact that it will have – both socially and economically. The current model of social welfare is to throw money into a problem. Creating new federal, state, and local agencies or augmenting existing ones with infusions of money and personnel will help correct the problem. Or perhaps the issue is the redistribution of wealth – taking money from the wealthy and giving it to the less fortunate is the way to correct imbalances. Since Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ was introduced – a social welfare program that recently celebrated it’ 40th anniversary – this has been the primary emphasis of social welfare. President Obama has argued that we need to increase our spending on these issues. I argue that after four decades of welfare socialism, we have not only failed to end poverty, we have created a hereditary under-class of the needy.
I have nothing but compassion for those in need and approach this topic with a truly generous heart. I am afraid that we as a nation have not done so in our current policies and programs. Indeed, we have denied people of a full and meaningful life by taking the easy route – throw money at a problem and ignore them. That hasn’t worked thus far – why would anyone think that throwing more would solve the problems of poverty?
Matthew 20-:1-15 is a perfect passage to begin our discussion on poverty and why our welfare system is broken. The essence of the reading is the generosity of a landowner towards workers. In the time of Jesus, workers seeking employment would congregate in a public place – a well, a town market, or other central location. Those seeking to hire labor would go to this place and select workers for the day at a daily rate often set by custom and usage. In this parable, Jesus relates the landowner periodically went to the well to hire workers throughout the day, sending them to his vineyard. Once there, they would be enrolled by the foreman and given their tasks. Morning, midmorning, midafternoon – even in the late afternoon, the landowner selected and sent workers to his fields. At the end of the day, he went to the foreman and instructed that is was time to pay the workers – the last first. All of them – even those who only worked a few hours – received the same rate. Some of the disgruntled workers, laboring since the morning, took exception to this practice and were chastised. The landowner argued that they received the wages they were promised and if he was inclined to show generosity to all workers, it was his money to spend. How does this Gospel passage relate to the topic at hand?
The landowner was demonstrating a Catholic virtue – compassion and generosity. God loves those who have a giving and generous heart. In a competitive working environment, the best workers would be chosen early, the least capable or competent may find no work. By returning throughout the day, the landowner was giving those who may have been unfortunate or perhaps were fired from another job a second chance. He gave them an opportunity to receive assistance without losing their dignity. He very easily could have simply given money to those at the well – would this not be the nadir of generosity? Would this not have been more kind then forcing them to go to the vineyards for an hour or two before getting paid? This landowner was wiser then our policymakers. He understood the value and dignity of work. He understood that people appreciate what they have earned and tend not to appreciate what they have been given.
Today, we have created a system where people are provided a modest amount of money on a regular basis to support their basic human needs. What could be wrong with that? Quite a bit. We have created a class of Americans who feel that they are incapable of making a contribution to society. By providing basic needs, we have removed the desire or the motivation for many to work to better their position – they have become content in what they have been given. Money has no human value – it is a means of exchange. It is easy to throw money at the poor, to create great monolithic edifices of public housing, and warehouse the poor in isolated and undesirable neighborhoods. And they are expected to do nothing of value, substance, or merit in return. Our policy cheapens and demeans people – we tell them that their contribution is so unimportant, we will pay them to remain marginalized outcasts. We are telling them it is easier for society to give them the necessities than it is to give them the tools they need to provide them for themselves. Lao Tzu is credited with the very appropriate maxim “Give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. Teach a man a fish, he will feed himself for a lifetime.” If only President Johnson and his advisors had such wisdom. If it were so, we likely would not be grappling with this problem of generational poverty.
The Landowner also understood that not everyone is equally capable. By offering employment to the latecomers, he was showing compassion and generosity to those who – for a variety of reasons – were not chosen until the end of the day. By noontime, the only workers likely to be idling by the well were among the least skilled, least educated, or the least capable. Yet he hired them, sent them to his foreman, who put them to such tasks as they were capable of doing for the remainder of the day. Our system provides a sustenance-level existence for millions on welfare, and many of those are unemployed or underemployed. How painful must it be to be marginalized in such a manner? Who among us is comfortable taking charity – even from those we love and know well? I cannot imagine the shame in receiving such charity from strangers. Standing in lines, filing out forms, receiving checks and infusions of a subsidized debit card. These are not people. They are cogs in a vast, impersonal social welfare machine. Their dreams, their aspirations, their talents are not considered. They are a file, a number, a recipient of the largesse of an impersonal government. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program had a number of ‘workfare’ programs – the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration, and countless other ‘alphabet soup’ agencies didn’t just give people food and shelter. It gave them the opportunity to receive aid as part of their compensation for work. They learned skills and trades, they were educated, they saw what effects their labor had on our society. They were not simply beggars at the gate, they earned their keep, they contributed to society. The Landowner knew the dignity of work. Why don’t we?
The resentful workers had some cause. After all, if the latecomers were being paid what they who labored a full day were receiving, doesn’t that diminish their wages? Shouldn’t those who have worked longer deserve more? Could they have been wondering if some of the money that went to the latecomers rightly deserved to be in their pockets? Imagine their discontent if they learned the Landowner had simply given money to the ‘idlers’ at the well. They would not have been disgruntled, they would have been outraged.
Can we not apply this outrage to taxes? After all, it is our tax dollars that subsidize a number of programs, welfare among them. Catholics are – or should be – generous people. Americans as a whole are generous. Many of us don’t resent aiding those in need. But we have always been a ‘hand-up’ people. We don’t much care for the handout – nor should we. American and Catholic principles are forged on self-sufficiency and personal acts of charity and compassion. I would much rather see my tax dollars spent on job training programs then the dole. There is much that needs to be done in our nation. AmeriCorps and other agencies that provide assistance in return for work, job training, and counseling are the better investment in our tax dollars – and in our brothers and sisters in need. The fiscal policy of our present system diminishes the importance of work. These leads to resentment in many – on social, political, moral, and – yes – religious grounds. This creates a spiral effect. After 40 years of the welfare state, people have been born into a system that provides a limited lifestyle without demands on their time and talents. They grow up believing that this is because they have nothing to offer, that their lives have no real purpose. As they grow into adulthood, they continue to see no hope, no drive, no desire. This is exacerbated by the reaction of the working class, who looks down on them as parasites in the body politic. Their sense of self-worth is slowly crushed by the system and by the way people view them and their lifestyle. As a teacher, I deal with students who have already learned this behavior. There is nothing more tragic than trying to educate children who have no sense of purpose, no sense of their value, no hope for the future. They don’t see the value in education, they don’t have the drive to better themselves. They have learned one lesson thus far – they are unimportant to society.
In this short Gospel reading, we have derived many relevant teachings that can be applied to the value of work, charity, and welfare. The landowner seeks to give those in need the opportunities to provide for themselves and their families in a compassionate and Christian manner. Christ is using this story to tell us that generosity is a tool that must be used wisely. It is God’s plan that we be generous to those in need. It is His will that we aid those in distress. And while there are those who can do no more then to have the grace to accept the aid of society, there are many more that can learn to support themselves. It is right and good to employ those in need. I argue that Christ also tells us in this parable, that it is important to give them not just money, but dignity.