A dirty “four letter word” that shouldn’t be: the welfare state.
Last Wednesday, former UK Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave what has been hailed by many as the greatest speech of his political career. In the thirteen minute address, Brown passionately advocated that Scots vote down the independence referendum the following day and stay in the union of nations comprising the United Kingdom. In the end, the Scottish independence referendum was defeated rather handily—with 55 percent of votes cast in the “no” camp. In the wake of Brown’s speech, some observers have praised him for singlehandedly “saving” the United Kingdom and have called for Brown to resume a more active role in national, frontbench politics. Moreover, a few have even gone so far to call for Queen Elizabeth II to knight the former PM.
But what struck me in Brown’s speech were the four instances which the former PM cited the UK welfare state as a motivation for maintaining the unique 300-year-old union of England and Scotland. In fact, Brown was unabashedly proud of his nation’s welfare state; its pensions; and its nationalized healthcare system (i.e., the NHS). Across the pond in the U.S., it would be tantamount to political ruin in our day and time for a political leader to stand up and give an impassioned, nationalistic call for pride in our “welfare state.” But, why should that be?
As the British are proud of their healthcare and pension system, we should be too. In America, we’ve become far too captivated by the self-made millionaire born of destitute poverty; the lone cowboy on the desolate open range; the humble farmer out to tame the harsh, unforgiving landscape; and the like. Often, we idolize these archetypes to our own detriment. This uniquely American iconography typifies the nuances and semantics of a rugged sense of individualism inherent to our culture. And to a certain extent, rightly so: there is something intrinsically American about going out on your own, doing something different, and achieving success for it.
But we should also be proud of our eminent willingness to help others via our welfare state—you know, Social Security (OASDI), Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, SNAP benefits, and more. Personal responsibility is very important, but it’s certainly not a catch-all, end-all. Peeling away the ornate upholstery that is democratic government, you’ll find democracy is simply an exercise in collective decision-making. As with every other western, industrialized nation-state, we’ve made a commitment to cooperatively help those in our society who are in need. Now, we can always reform our welfare state, make it leaner, and more effective to eradicate poverty, but we should be nonetheless proud of our commitment to the less fortunate among us.
I say this not in spite of my deep Christian faith, but because of it. The New Testament is replete with Christ traveling far and wide to heal the sick. And I believe that obligation, to seek to remedy the infirm among us, is of paramount importance. In Matthew (14:16, to be exact; also, Mark 6:37), Jesus tells his disciples to not send away the troves of followers, but let them stay with him and feast. As a Catholic, I feel it is all our duty to feed the hungry and aid the poor—not to judge or malign the less fortunate.
Poverty is real. (Particularly, in the rural south.) Sure, it would be best to help the poor find good paying jobs with benefits—but let’s not live in an imagined world conjured by senseless idealism. We should strive to not only provide good jobs, but help those down on their luck in the interim. That’s why we have a social “safety net.”
For this and more, I am proud to live in a time and place where we have public programs which serve the “down-and-out.” Like Gordon Brown in the UK, I am proud of our commitment to aid those in need. We all should be. And certainly, we can always improve the ways we help the poor, but let’s not use the guise of “welfare reform” to simply gut our public safety net and do just the opposite.
(For instance, in full disclosure, I’m a big advocate of Clinton’s welfare-to-work program. Which, upsettingly, President Obama has effectively done away with.)
Of course, the naysayers among us do so because of a tacit intolerance for those receiving public assistance or a reductionist sense of inflated ego. But that isn’t very Christian of us, is it? Let’s not forget why we so desperately need public welfare in the first place: because charity doesn’t even come close to actually ameliorating poverty. And that, I think, says it all.
Nicholas A. Rudnik is currently pursuing a degree in political science with a concentration in American politics at Valdosta State University. Previously, he’s served as a congressional page in the U.S. House of Representatives during the 111th Congress and in the Office of U.S. Congressman Sanford Bishop. Further, Nick has served on staff at an institutional interest group, the Association of American Law Schools, in Washington and has worked in the private sector. He has presented his research, focused primarily on congressional parties and elections, at regional academic conferences and hopes to pursue a graduate degree in political science. Nick is currently completing two manuscripts relating to southern congressional elections and judicial decision-making in the area of campaign finance; he can be contacted via e-mail at email@example.com. Follow Nick on Twitter: @NickRudnik.
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