Yesterday I received in my mailbox a solicitation from a “Gospel Rescue Mission” here in Joplin called Watered Gardens. The appeal said “Easter is all about…new. New life, New hope and New direction.” The enclosed response card said:
Yes! I want to provide new hope this Easter. Yes! I want to help break the cycle of dependency and poverty.
I get it that a local ministry would want to use the theme surrounding Easter as a way of, uh, raising funds to help the poor. That’s fine with me. But there is something disturbing about the Watered Gardens appeal that has nothing to do with Easter. It has to do with the anti-government ideology that underlies it.
The founder and director of Watered Gardens, James Whitford, allegedly discovered that “the growing welfare state is hurting more than it’s helping.” He discovered this, he says, by first discovering that those working “in the name of mercy and for God’s justice” were using “misdirected” compassion that resulted “in blind charity that fosters oppressive dependency in the very people for which we give our lives to love and empower.” He wrote:
We reached a point within the first few years of ministry when we realized our good intentions may actually be part of perpetuating a problem rather than yielding the fruit of poverty resolution.We recognized the need for the development of on-line tools so charities and help organizations could connect and work together as seamlessly as possible.
That sounds good. That sounds like the heart is in the right place. Trying to “resolve” the problem of poverty and coordinating with other charities to do so sounds like a great idea. But then came this:
As the use of those tools began to grow, “double dipping” became less frequent by the poor who were used to abusing charity or for those who were simply stuck in a dependent cycle. The tools were empowering our community to love people through accountability and personal challenge instead of the common hand-out!
Now we get to the nitty gritty. The poor were guilty of “double dipping” and “abusing charity” because they were either dishonest or “stuck in a dependent cycle.” And the way to correct their ungodly behavior was “through accountability and personal challenge.” In the name of Jesus, no more hand-outs! No extra soup for you! If this sounds familiar to your ears, it should. It is the Mitt Romney 47% nonsense. It is the Paul Ryan “makers and takers” libertarian fantasy. In 2012, Ryan said:
“Right now about 60 percent of the American people get more benefits in dollar value from the federal government than they pay back in taxes. So we’re going to a majority of takers versus makers in America and that will be tough to come back from that. They’ll be dependent on the government for their livelihoods [rather] than themselves.”
As you can see, what Joplin’s James Whitford allegedly discovered isn’t really anything new. What he supposedly figured out from his experiences with the poor and homeless in Joplin has been right-wing dogma about the less fortunate and government dependence since at least the New Deal.
In any case, Whitford explained how his new-found “tools” to “to love people through accountability and personal challenge instead of the common hand-out!” didn’t work so well with government:
Our progress in this vein met a hurdle when it came to state welfare. Even though a welfare office was in our local community and helping the same people we were helping through our established, connected and growing network, state officials said they were unable to release information about those receiving help such as SNAP, TANF, and LIHEAP (food, cash and utility) assistance.
Why would Watered Gardens and its network of private charity agencies want to know about what government help local poor people were receiving? Obviously so they could hold accountable a poor person coming to them for help by possibly asking: “Hey, what did you do with your $125 worth of food stamps this month?” Without that government-provided information, poor people might take advantage of the Christian do-gooders and get more than they deserve because, as we all know, the destitute will, when given a chance, “abuse” the help they are offered.
That is the rationale behind so much right-wing public policy directed toward the poor. And in case there is any doubt in your mind that James Whitford, leader of a local “Gospel Rescue Mission,” subscribes to that right-wing rationale and thus has his sights set on curtailing government programs for the disadvantaged, read this:
It became clearer that the presence of welfare was hurting the poor more than helping them. It’s been said that dependency is merely slavery with a smiling mask. Today, that mask is the continued distribution of resource in the way of food stamps, housing assistance, and even private forms of charity lacking insight to outcomes. The oppression I see so frequently in the welfare dependent poor compelled me to consider that more was necessary than just community connection, but education and policy reform, as well. The True Charity Initiative formed in the Fall of 2012.
From the looming deficit in Washington to the poor who remain dependent on Washington, the growing welfare state is hurting more than it’s helping. Now is the time for a grassroots movement of community leaders to join in an initiative that calls communities to effective charity and freedom from welfare. There has never been so important a moment in our history for the Church to be both a voice and a force for reform, to provide just and effective alternatives to state welfare, to empower and ennoble the poor, and to take up again the mantle of true and effective charity.
I want you to take note of a couple of things he said besides expressing his hostility toward government assistance. He wants something called “effective charity and freedom from welfare.” Well, who doesn’t? A decent-paying job, perhaps a union job, would take care of the problem. But—and this is crucial—Whitford wants “the Church to be both a voice and a force for reform.” That should scare the devil out of all of us. The Church, he suggests, should be involved in shaping public policy and, of course, it will be the Church that becomes one, if not the only one, of those “effective alternatives to state welfare.” That way, if you need help, you will have to come to the Church to get it and, along with a meal and a cot, you will also get an “if you don’t work, you don’t eat” sermon and an invitation to meet Jesus (Whitford: “It’s been our joy to be a part of a growing work that expands its reach every year to help those in need and share Christ’s transforming message”).
If you go to the website of “The True Charity Initiative” that Whitford started, you will find libertarian think-tank articles like “The Rising Cost of Social Security Disability Insurance” or “Less Welfare, More Charity,” both from the CATO Institute and both full of the same maker-taker dogma that Republicans find attractive these days. But you will also find a 2012 article by Whitford himself in which he complains about a government program that distributes cell phones to the poor and claims such programs are not “true charity.” Here he exposes not so much his fondness for Christianity as his fondness for an “I’ve got mine” libertarian philosophy that has come to dominate Republican politics:
Justice is prerequisite to true charity. How can charity be true if it’s accomplished by taking from one what is rightfully his? We have seen a great deal of funding flow into Joplin in the last year, both private and public. Did some of those public tax dollars do any good? Of course. Should we be happy for the people who are helped by public funding? I am. I simply suggest we recognize that this is not true charity and that rather than celebrate accomplishments achieved at the expense of working, taxpaying Americans, we should instead wince, drop our heads a bit and find a new resolve to stand for what is just, a place where liberty is preserved and true charity abounds.
People like James Whitford and all those who work for and support his Watered Gardens ministry in Joplin are obviously free to marry a brand of libertarian selfishness with a brand of evangelical Christianity, if they think that makes sense to them. They can also claim that they want to take away the power of the government to help people and give it to the Church because that would constitute “true charity” and it would allow the church to hold those charity-abusing poor people accountable. But we should not allow their weird mix of Ayn Rand philosophy and Christianity—which Rand would find appalling, by the way—to dictate public policy.
Unfortunately, though, it is.
Here’s how Kevin Horrigan, writing for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, began an editorial on the latest efforts by our GOP-dominated Missouri legislature to “reform” the Welfare State via Senate Bill 24:
Among many, if not most, Republican lawmakers in Missouri, it is an article of faith that people on “welfare” are lazy good-for-nothings who prefer to sit on the sofa watching TV, eating steak, gawking at pornography and soaking up fabulous government benefits instead of hauling their able bodies to work.
The facts behind poverty in Missouri belie this notion, but never mind! Why let facts get in the way when stereotypes are so much easier?
SB 24, as Horrigan points out, is designed to make an already stingy welfare system in Missouri even worse:
It “reforms” the TANF program, which pays families an average of $230 a month. About 76,000 people receive benefits, 52,000 of them children. Of the 24,000 adults on the program, the majority are single mothers of those children. The Legislature wants them to get to work, though what they will do for child care while working at their $7.50 an hour jobs is their problem.
Horrigan points out other attempts by Republicans in this state (and Democrat Jay Nixon has not exactly been a bleeding-heart liberal governor, by the way) to make war on the poor, particularly poor kids and their moms. But it is not only in Missouri where Christian Republican legislators are trying to get government out of the welfare business. The effort is nationwide, as this headline demonstrates:
That Los Angeles Times article notes:
The ambitious but largely symbolic spending proposals adhere to Republican ideas for slashing social safety-net programs and lowering tax rates.
That is exactly the kind of “reform” that a local Joplin man running an allegedly Christian charity is asking “the Church” to get behind. Because, as he told us, “Easter is all about…New life, New hope and New direction” and, apparently, it’s about crucifying welfare programs and raising tax cuts from the dead.
[Image of James Whitford from KODE TV]