Sunday, March 05, 2006


Since 1980, "entitlement" has become a dirty word in the public policy arena.

Given that, our leaders have sliced away billions of dollars in support of so-called "entitlement programs," such as Food Stamps, Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), Veterans' pensions and health care, housing, child care, employment training--the list goes on and on.

The anti-entitlement thinking goes something like this:

"Too many people feel as if they are entitled to being cared for, as if it is their right."

"This trend has got to stop or be severely curtailed."

"Those people are going to bankrupt the nation and destroy our economy."

No doubt, some changes and reforms in these and other programs of support and uplift were needed and justified.

But, now we have gone way too far in cutting back expenditures that benefit the poor, the weak, the young and the elderly.

We are in danger of undercutting the future health of our nation and its democracy due to the extremes to which we have gone.

Ironically, much of the change has been spearheaded by the very groups of Christian people who claim to respect the Bible most--some Evangelicals and many Fundamentalists. They seem eager to discuss values, so long as we don't include poverty and those its devastates on our agenda for conversation.

The words of the Bible itself bear witness to the values of God and the people of God across the ages.

The Bible makes it clear that God regards the poor as having very clear rights.

So far as the God of the Bible is concerned, the poor are entitled to certain benefits and treatment by the more well off and particularly by those in charge of the political process.

A couple of examples will suffice for now:

"How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked." Psalm 82:2-4

"Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless." Isaiah 10:1-2

From these and other readings we must conclude that the poor have rights. Thus, for people of faith, the poor are entitled to fair treatment and to those benefits that can lift them from their poverty and/or protect them from further oppression at the hands of the powerful.

Before jumping on the anti-entitlement bandwagon,we would be wise to reconsider the clear instructions of those materials that inform our faith. Just a thought.


Anonymous said...

Larry - I know they are all valuable, what do you think are the "priority" programs among those you listed? In other words, if we were to fight to get funding renewed, which are the critical ones in terms of best investment?

Not to be heartless, but in making the fight, it's sometimes best to think of terms of the vocabulary used by the opposition. I know they make sense on a moral/personal basis, but which of these programs also make the best business sense? (i.e. money spent on CHIP saves money later spent in emergency rooms, etc.)

Larry James said...

Good question and good thinking, Anonymous.

What most people don't realize or think of is the fact that almost all spending on these programs benefits not just those receiving the benefits, but everyone.

For example, a couple of years ago we did a study of Dallas County and determined that the county was losing about $250 million annually by not getting Food Stamps to all who were eligible. In other words, retail grocery markets were losing these funds. On top of that, by not drawing down these federal dollars, tax money we had already paid went to benefit the economies of Seattle, Philadelphia, Miami and Chicago!

Take housing programs as another example. When the feds cut and our state refuses to draw down funds for the housing voucher program, not only are the poor denied good housing, but developers cannot make their deals work economically.

Almost every program works this way. "Entitlement" spending impacts the economy more broadly than tax cuts for the rich.

Then, of course, there is the long term benefit you mention--every $1 spent on children's health today likely save our economy at least $7 in the future.

Two things are going on today.

First, ordinary people aren't paying attention.

Second, a small percentage of the population that benefits from cuts in spending largely control the process and the policy. Until we mobize the middle and the lower classes and until we learn to play the "influence" game, nothing is likely to change very much.