The Uses and Abuses of Welfare
IMAGINE a country where countless men, women and children die because of malnutrition; where multitudes wander from place to place without homes or work; where hundreds of thousands live in sprawling shantytowns, inhabiting “homes” made of boxes or rusty car bodies; where beggars stay alive by stealing or by foraging scraps from garbage cans.
No, this is not some poverty-stricken Asian or African land. This is the United States of America, 50 years ago during the Great Depression. At that time millions in both Europe and the United States were desperately poor, with little hope of improving their situation. It was to prevent the return of such poverty that many governments established public welfare.
Today, working people in many industrial lands experience relative financial security because of government programs for financial help. In some places they receive grants, such as allowances for each child. They may pay taxes that give them the right to claim benefits to help tide them over periods of unemployment, cover medical bills or give them pensions when they retire. In these lands, if citizens suffer hardship, public assistance is often available to help them survive.
All such programs are very humane. Nevertheless, they have led to problems. Some people are bitter because they suspect that their taxes are being used to support people who could work for a living if they so wanted. Others feel it is undignified to accept handouts. How should a Christian view welfare? Is it proper to accept it? Are there any dangers?
Guidance From the Bible
About 3,000 years ago two widows named Naomi and Ruth moved into the town of Bethlehem in Judah. They were destitute, but they did not starve. Why not? Because the law of that land made special provision for the sustenance of the poor, especially for widows and orphans.—Deuteronomy 26:12, 13.
In the days of the Christian apostles, the poor were often assisted through the Christian congregation. For example, the apostle Paul wrote the elder Timothy a letter that included instructions to give a regular allowance to elderly widows who had no family to look after them.—1 Timothy 5:3-16.
Today, that ancient Law of Israel and the letter the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy are both part of the Holy Bible. Hence, the Bible encourages the principle of giving help to the needy. In fact, Christians in a position to do so are obligated to help their poor brothers.—1 John 3:17.
What, though, when the state has programs for financially assisting its citizens? A Christian can cooperate with this. All Christians are obliged to pay “to him who calls for the tax, the tax; to him who calls for the tribute, the tribute.” (Romans 13:7) This would include all the taxes that are earmarked to be used for state benefits.
By the same token, it is proper to accept any of these benefits to which we are legally entitled because of present circumstances. The apostle Paul said that governments are “God’s minister to you for your good.” (Romans 13:4) So any grants, any help in the way of pension plans or medical insurance, even public assistance because of poverty, can all be properly accepted by a Christian who honestly qualifies. However, problems may arise.
A Conscientious Decision
Consider the situation of a young man who has chosen a career as a full-time preacher. Since this is unpaid, voluntary work, he takes a part-time job to support himself. It may happen that because the only available part-time employment gives him an income below a certain figure, he qualifies for government benefits. Should he apply for them?
Well, he is not avoiding work. He is making an effort to support himself in an honorable way. As long as the authorities fully understand his situation and agree that he qualifies, there may be no reason for his refusing to accept any supplementary benefits that are available. It is not shameful to accept such assistance. In the United States, even some who work in the military receive it.
However, in some localities people are sensitive on the subject of government assistance. In such places a situation like this could offend the local community. Hence, the Christian will want to give careful thought to the situation.
Remember the apostle Paul. While he was in Corinth and in Thessalonica, he refused financial help from the congregations, even though he had a right to ask for it. Why? To avoid causing problems for his fellow Christians there. (2 Corinthians 11:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:8, 9) However, in other places he evidently did accept help.—1 Corinthians 9:6, 9.
Other situations that some have taken offense at involve women who do not have husbands to help them rear their children. Should they go out to work or should they seek government benefits?
Surely, this is up to the individual woman to decide. After all, it is her children who are involved. In one case, a mother may feel fully justified in taking advantage of government financial assistance that enables her to be with her young children all the time. Another, with school-age children, may feel it would be unwise for her not to be home when they return from school each day.
On the other hand, another mother may feel justified in taking a job and leaving her children in someone else’s care during the day. Each situation is different, and no one should criticize another for the course she decides to take. Running a home and rearing children are weighty and time-consuming responsibilities, especially for a lone woman. Such single-parent families were viewed as needing special help in the days of the Israelites. Today, each woman should weigh her own financial situation and other circumstances and decide how to handle the situation.—Deuteronomy 24:19-21; James 1:27.
But sometimes people make decisions that are clearly wrong.
The Temptations of State Assistance
For example, in some lands, when a man loses his job, his unemployment compensation can be as high as 80 percent of what he was earning at work. A man receiving such benefits may wonder, What is the point of looking for another job? A Christian may even see advantages in not getting work. He does not have to listen to bad language and can avoid the bad associations that are often a problem in secular work.
Is such reasoning correct? Not really. First, it overlooks the fact that unemployment assistance is usually paid on the understanding that a man is looking for work. If he is not, then deceit may be involved. Then again, money for such benefits comes from other people’s taxes. In other words, other people are working to support his family. Is this a situation an able-bodied Christian would be happy with?—Matthew 7:12.
When Paul wrote to the congregation in Thessalonica, he spoke of some who were not working and said: “If anyone does not want to work, neither let him eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10) This was wise counsel. Man gets satisfaction from work. (Ecclesiastes 2:24) Failure to keep busy in productive work can have a bad effect on him. It can lead to frustration or even crime. “The one showing himself slack in his work—he is a brother to the one causing ruin.”—Proverbs 18:9.
True, at times when work is not available a man may be forced to rely on state benefits. But when work is available that one could reasonably accept, Paul’s counsel holds true: “Make it your aim to live quietly and to mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we ordered you; so that you may be walking decently as regards people outside.”—1 Thessalonians 4:11, 12.
But could not a Christian receiving government assistance instead of having a full-time job engage in more Christian activity? Perhaps so. But what effect could this have on others? Paul associates “work with your hands” with “walking decently as regards people outside.” Those who avoid work are not respected. Their bad reputation is likely to counteract any good they accomplish in other ways.—1 Timothy 3:7.
The lure of available state financial assistance can lead to other problems. Not long ago a man immigrated to a country with such benefits and applied for unemployment assistance. In his application he concealed the fact that he owned property in his home country—a fact that would have made him ineligible for benefits. Hence, he got money from the state by concealing the truth.
Deception may be practiced in many ways. To claim financial assistance a wife may tell the authorities that her husband has deserted her. But the husband may still be at home with her. A couple may get a divorce—but keep on living together—in order to get more benefits. Single women have been known to have children illegitimately in order to get increased help. Or it may be that a person is qualified to receive certain benefits, but the situation may change. He may get a job, for example. But by failing to report the change, he continues to draw financial help from the state.
These are typical abuses of the welfare system. By concealing facts, telling outright lies or in some other way violating Christian principles, it is sometimes possible to deceive the authorities and get extra money. But the Bible warns: “The devious person is a detestable thing to Jehovah, but His intimacy is with the upright ones.” It also states: “The getting of treasures by a false tongue is an exhalation driven away, in the case of those seeking death.” (Proverbs 3:32; 21:6) No Christian would want to be detestable in Jehovah’s eyes, just for financial gain.
But another danger in this matter has to be guarded against.
People who know that state benefits are available can be irresponsible. They can come to rely on the state to shoulder responsibilities that the Bible says should be handled by individuals. In some cases they grew up under circumstances where such thinking prevailed. Perhaps several generations have been raised on public assistance, and it is difficult for them to imagine any other way of life.
However, a state’s arrangements to give financial help do not relieve a Christian of his God-given responsibilities. Paul said: “If anyone does not provide for . . . those who are members of his household, he has disowned the faith and is worse than a person without faith.” (1 Timothy 5:8) If, in some lands, the state helps the head of a household a little to care for his family—by means of pensions for the elderly, family allowances and similar provisions—he can be grateful for the provision. But caring for his family is still his responsibility.
Similarly, the apostle John said that it is a Christian’s responsibility to help his poorer brothers. (1 John 3:17) True, in some lands the state may make some material provision for the poor. But the Christian obligation to help is still there. A Christian should continue to be alert to give material and spiritual aid to those who are truly in need.
Yes, such governmental arrangements to provide financial benefits are a humane provision of “Caesar.” If they did not exist, Christian congregations would probably have to do far more in this regard than they do at present. Nevertheless, a Christian should not abuse the provisions. He should not lie, conceal the truth or in any other way compromise Christian standards. And he should not rely on the state to care for his God-given responsibilities.
In his letter to the Hebrews, the apostle Paul said: “Let your manner of life be free of the love of money, while you are content with the present things. For [Jehovah] has said: ‘I will by no means leave you nor by any means forsake you.’” (Hebrews 13:5) He also encouraged the Corinthians to do “all things for God’s glory.”—1 Corinthians 10:31.
What fine principles are stressed there! Avoid the love of money. Rely on Jehovah for all things, while accepting from the state those benefits to which we may be lawfully entitled. In everything we do, consider the effect on God’s name. If we keep these three principles well in mind, we will be helped to have a right view of welfare.
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To prevent the repetition of such scenes as this, public welfare was established
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The fact that a country makes financial help available does not take away from a man his responsibility to care for his own family