For every story about a hard working person living in poverty there is an anecdote about some person using food stamps to buy steak. The story about the hard working person is used as an argument for public assistance, the anecdote as evidence we are throwing our money away on moochers. While this discussion has its value and there is more to be said still I wonder if it would be helpful to reframe the conversation.
Many wise people from Ben Franklin to the bible have upheld ideals about protecting the innocent. Many have said it is better some guilty go free than an innocent person be punished. Requiring guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is one way of protecting the innocent. We could consider poverty in a similar way. We all know (I hope) there are people on public assistance who need the help and whom we should want to help for the sake of compassion and the greater good. We all know there are some who take advantage of the system. Yet it seems to me steps should be taken to protect those in need of assistance. Just as it is horrible for an innocent person to be thrown in jail, it is horrible if someone in need starves. How many of our neighbors do we allow to go hungry for the sake of protecting ourselves from the moochers? We cannot guarantee no innocent person will ever go to jail or no guilty person go free. We cannot guarantee no one goes hungry and no one abuses public assistance. But we can take steps to protect the innocent without turning our society over to the criminals or throwing our money to the wind.
It was difficult for me to find statistics on suspected abuse of public assistance (we tend to speak in generalities like “a lot”) but some possible percentages ranged from 2%-6%. That is 94 of our neighbors helped in a time of need for every 6 who misuse our tax dollars. This doesn’t mean steps can’t be taken to avoid abuse but does mean we need to consider those 94 before we take any of those steps. It does mean possible abuse of the system is not justification for across the board cuts to vital programs for those suffering in poverty. We need to ask ourselves questions like is it worth shaming those who need assistance for the sake of preventing misuse of some tax dollars? Is it worth putting barriers in the way of those who need assistance? Is it worth some not receiving assistance when they need it? Can we accept some misuse of our tax dollars for the sake of ensuring those who need help receive it? What is an acceptable proportion of neighbors who go without to those who take advantage of us? Should we be willing to let one person starve for the sake of catching those who abuse public assistance? Ten people? Hundreds? Should we accept some abuse of the system as a price we pay for ensuring no one goes hungry? If so, how much? How many tax dollars are we willing to lose for the sake of helping our neighbors?
Some of these questions are difficult to answer and there are many more questions besides. But perhaps reframing the questions could help us see more clearly. Then we can see the stories with clear eyes and reach out to help the people behind those stories.