Watson: Who is ‘entitled’?

Mar 26, 2018 by

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It has become politically trendy to separate the deserving poor from the supposedly undeserving. This is evident in calls for work requirements for Medicare; in Ben Carson’s comment last year that public housing not be “too comfortable,” lest the poor begin to believe the government will care for them indefinitely; in the way families are penalized if they do not file to end food stamps the minute their income rises above 130 percent of the federal poverty level. If their income drops below the poverty line and they reapply for food stamps, the food stamps will be garnished to make up for the money they previously “stole.”

Hillary Watson

Watson

In a true democracy, these voices insist, people are rewarded by merit. And why should the poor be exempt from merit-based standards the middle class and wealthy face?

Just after the tax reform bill passed last year, and just before Christmas, House speaker Paul Ryan announced that reducing social programs like Medicare, Medicaid and welfare was at the top of his 2018 agenda for Congress. He insisted these programs “are the big drivers of debt.”

At the same time, the Republican Party made a deliberate effort to stop using the phrase “welfare” (the legal term for government support to those in poverty) and began using “entitlement.” This linguistic move transformed the nature of the world, and of the American commitment to poverty.

“Welfare” is the language of what the rich owe to the poor. It encompasses the idea that the welfare of the poor is intimately tied to the welfare of the rich; therefore the rich share from their abundance to enhance the lives of poor.

“Entitlement” is the language of what the poor owe to the rich. It asks, “Are the poor entitled to anything if they cannot prove they contribute to society (by which, it is implied, to rich people)?”

This shift in language is distant from the Bible’s approach to poverty. From the moment God leads the Israelites out of Egypt, God explains how those with plenty are obligated to let the alien, widow and orphan glean at the edges of their fields. Jesus had no minimum requirement of those he healed. In his encounter with the Syro­phoenician woman, when he suggests there may be a requirement, she argues for mercy, and he agrees: There is no limit on God’s goodness.

Over and over, the Bible does not ask if the poor are worthy of help. It asks if the rich are worthy of salvation.

In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus speaks of heaven and hell: “Remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.”

The strangest thing about using the phrase “entitlement programs” is that as Christians, as Americans and as a global collective we have repeatedly agreed that all humans are entitled to basic standards of living.

In the Sermon on the Mount, the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we affirm all people are entitled to a certain humanitarian regard. By virtue of our humanity, we refuse to treat each other with callous disregard.

The truth is that U.S. social programs are both welfare and entitlement. Christian faith compels us to view others — even the poor who are addicted or lazy or in mental-health crisis — in the image of God. They do not need to earn our kindness. They are entitled.

In the words of Christ, we are called to do unto them what we would do unto ourselves.

Hillary Watson pastors at Lombard Mennonite Church in suburban Chicago. She blogs at gatheringthestones.com.


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