Biblical Ethics: Are welfare programs promoting bad character?

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I recently finished writing a paper for a Christian Ethics course, and I chose the topic of welfare. I chose the topic mainly because I work with men (homeless) who are dependent on food stamps and assistance programs. Most of them don’t realize it but they are enslaved by the welfare system. They seek to live month to month on the assistance of the government, and some of them do not even want to get a job. Some of them disappear around the first of the month. And when all of their money is spent boozing, doing dope, and paying for sexual favors, they return to the shelter, broken waiting on the first of the month to roll around again.

It is also a topic of interest to me because some of my family members have had to file for welfare assistance. Some of them do abuse the system, but others are greatly in need. The Bible calls for us to care for the poor (Matthew 25:31-46), especially the poor among the family of faith (Galatians 6:10). There are numerous references to the people of God concerning themselves with the poor. In fact, the primary means of support to the poor is through the Church (Gal. 2:10) You would think that welfare programs would be supported by Christians who value the care of the poor. However, many evangelicals abhor welfare, and want to do away with it. I don’t blame them, the qualification and screening processes that are involved in welfare are sub par. I don’t think that it should be abolished, but serious reform needs to take place.

The War on Poverty of the 1960 was a legitimate push to reduce the poverty gap. I think the leaders who passed legislation had very good intentions and wanted to genuinely help. But they did not consider the brokenness of people. People, by nature, have character flaws. There is a reason that Paul encourages the Thessalonian believers to avoid idle people since we have a tendency towards idleness. Character can really influence behavior. And in the case with welfare, relief to people who suffer from laziness only increased their laziness. Dr. Carl Ellis says it was like pouring water on a grease fire. Water is effective for wood fires, but when applied to grease fires, it increases the flames. The war on poverty and the development of these welfare programs helped those wood fires (i.e. poor people who suffered from bad circumstances (fires, floods, company downsizing, etc.)), but it increased the flames of the grease fires (i.e. poor people with bad character). There is something to be said about culture too.

The Bible defines the poor as those who are generally oppressed by the rich, or are marginalized. Often the foreigner, the sick, and the widow were considered the poor of scripture. In light of this, how should the church respond to our current system of welfare. The church is uniquely equipped to deal with people with bad character and a poor value system. How can we help push reform of welfare so that the lazy don’t become lazier, but are empowered to live a life that is good and pleasing to God? I have my ideas, but what do you think?

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