I have two friends whose families are going through hard times. Unemployment, illness, and new babies are individually a challenge to any family. Together they can strain a family’s financial and psychological resources past the breaking point.
My friends take their work seriously and consistently put in their best efforts. They do not need lessons in how to work. They need some real help. They could use a safety net.
The economic safety net, to catch families who encounter problems beyond their resources and then to bounce them back on their feet, is a modern invention. European monarchies created property systems to provide cheap labor to wealthy landowners and political systems to protect the rich, in which the poor had no voice. So millions moved to the New World.
American democracy was designed to promote more fairness: “All men are created equal.” But the political democracy of the Founders was not enough. All men and women were not born with equal chances. In 19th-century America, riches and poverty were considered judgments of God and thus the poor were undeserving. Slavery, prejudice against ethnic minorities, child labor in factories, and systematic discrimination against women were all pieces of the more general rigging of the American economic and social system in favor of the rich, against the poor. The minority who escaped poverty proved that the majority deserved it.
In the 20th century, Americans changed our laws to create an economic and social safety net. Social Security and unemployment insurance in the 1930s, and Medicare in the 1960s were elements of an evolving structure, which offered public help to those without resources. The safety net represents an American consensus that the poor deserve systematic public assistance, not just individual charity. This expression of social solidarity is a statement about American values.
Lately prominent political voices argue that we must take apart the safety net. The calls to flatten the income tax, to eliminate welfare payments, and to repeal regulation of industry are about going back to an earlier America, where the rich and powerful could use their advantages without hindrance. Behind these destructive policies lurk the uncharitable beliefs about the poor that all modern nations have left behind: the poor are lazy and shiftless, don’t know the meaning of work, have frivolous ambitions, depend on handouts, will never amount to anything.
These political leaders don’t like the newly compassionate America. They disdain people who have less than they do. They think the riches of our nation belong to them and their well-connected friends. They offer nothing to my friends.
I admire the way my friends keep going, keep smiling, and keep working. Their burdens are neither kept secret nor broadcast in public. They are shouldered, not avoided or passed onto others.
Are their burdens my burdens, too? I can choose my answer. Are they our burdens? We choose our answer together. Those answers are signs of our friendship, our compassion, and our values.
If we take care of our family members, we do no extraordinary thing. We do what Americans rightly expect family to mean in a good society.
If we take on our friends’ burdens, offer some help, even if not much, we do a less common thing. Americans place a high value on such offers, and offer praise to those who give.
What about a stranger’s burden? What about all those people you haven’t met and never will, who suffer more than you know, who happen to have no relatives or friends with the resources to help? Outside of the drug store, the Salvation Army volunteer rings a bell: “Won’t you give a few coins to help people you don’t know?” Our religions powerfully demand that we help those in need near and far, that we not tailor our compassion to our self-interest.
What kind of family member one is, what kind of friend one is, and what kind of society we are all come from our answers to these questions. If our state, the only organization to which we all belong, in which we all have an equal vote, is not compassionate, if it caters to those with wealth and power, but does not care for those with too little, then how can we pose as an exceptional nation? Among wealthy nations we would be exceptionally hard-hearted.
It is ironic that the public defenders of Christmas have waged a war on the moral value of public compassion, have offered so little to those with little, except condescension. They expound theories to prove that those who have much deserve it all, that their good fortune is our collective salvation, and the rest should just work harder. For them, a “bleeding heart” is a weakness.
If your family has run into hard times, if your unemployment insurance has run out, if your baby does not have health insurance, if there’s never quite enough food on the table, the defenders of Christmas have a message for you.
From the Mitt Romney family, the Newt Gingrich family, the John Boehner family, and all their friends, the warmest Christmas wishes for a happy holidays. They made it, and so can you. As a token of their own values, they’ll make sure that Santa leaves a mop under your tree.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 13, 2011