Wednesday, April 22, 2009

We're all "entitled"

I think the most difficult obstacle to honest, earnest political debate is that everyone knows where people stand on certain issues, but not why.

This is particularly damaging to the entitlement reform debate. On one hand, there are many in this country who simply don't have other options. They don't earn enough money, some don't earn money at all, and our compassion tells us that we need to help. On the other hand, though, they foster a sense (in some people's minds) that they don't need to take care of themselves because the government will take care of them if they're ever in real trouble. People who oppose entitlements, welfare, government subsidies, and especially bailouts generally feel that everyone should be on an equal playing field.

Say you have two boys. The first one was raised by parents who at times had to work as many as two or three jobs apiece just to keep their family in a nice home with food on the table and enough money saved to pay for their child's education. The second boy's parents spent all their extra money on tickets to the Super Bowl and the latest-model sports cars (and of course, the insurance for those cars). Neither one's families had enough money leftover for health insurance.

After they turn eighteen, both boys get into accidents and need lifesaving surgeries. The parents of the first son have to dip into his college fund and even take out a mortgage on their home to pay for the surgery. The second family gets a hypothetical handout from the government (paid for, in part, by the taxes collected from the first family). Obviously, you don't want the second son to die, but how do you justify taking from hard-working families to make up for the fact that some families just don't do what's necessary to prepare for emergencies? I suppose you could make the case that the first family could simply apply for their own "handout", but the more the government hands out, the more it needs to take in. And where do you think they'll find the money that they take?

I don't want to sound like I have no compassion; I do have it. I care what happens to the boy of the second couple. I care what happens to the couple. I also care what they do from this point onward. Will they trade their flashy cars for sensible ones so they can save money on maintenance and insurance? Will they skip a few more summer blockbusters and sporting events? Eat at home more than they eat in restaurants? I'm all for creature comforts, but not at the expense of what truly matters.

Of course, there are families and individuals who have nowhere else to turn but the government. We've all seen the man or the woman or even the child at the side of the road, dirty clothes, oily hair, sign in hand, just waiting for someone to help them. Maybe we stop and hand them a few dollars, maybe we pass by and rationalize not stopping to help, or maybe we just don't care. How often do we do more? How often do we even know what more we can do?

People don't need handouts; they need jobs. The problem is, even when times are good, there are hardly enough jobs to go around. Even when there are, most employers generally want some kind of address on the application. I told a friend once that the hundreds of billions spent bailing out banks and mortgage lenders could be better spent transitioning laid off workers into other jobs. Instead of funneling money into businesses that seem likely to go bankrupt anyway, the government simply could have taken that money and given it directly to the people who were losing their jobs. While the companies went through bankruptcy proceedings, we could have spent a few months protecting the hurt families and then helped them find new jobs as they became available.

I may be naive, and even if I'm not, it may be too late; but this is the basis for the conservative argument, I feel. I like the slogan that's been making its way around the country: "Spread my work ethic, not my wealth". If it seems to lack compassion, then that's a shame; because the sentiment echoes one that has been around for much longer. The old adage goes: "Give a man a fish, and you've fed him for a day; teach him how to fish, and you've fed him for the rest of his life". Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security have helped millions; but they're still cases of giving people fish. When it comes time for entitlement reform, we need long-term solutions, not more government taxing and spending. Giving to the poor is something that we all should do, even if it's not a solution; but having someone take from you and then give to the poor is even less of a solution.

I'll close with a copy of the letter I wrote to my Congressman today.

Dear Congressman,

I passed a woman on the street today who held a sign for drivers to read. It said "Will Work for Food". It occured to me that the most the woman could hope for was that some people might stop and offer her a few bucks. No one, I felt, would offer her a job.

Congressman, it was hard enough for me to get a job when the economy wasn't in its current straits. Something that every application requires, among other things, is an address. I doubt this woman even has one. Her only hope right now is the cardboard sign she carries.

I had a conversation with a friend one time in which I mentioned that I'd like to open a business one day, any kind of business, and then just round up all the homeless and the sign carriers and put them to work. I told my friend that was the only way most of these people would ever work again.

The bailout rationale, Congressman, to my view, was to keep banks and lenders from failing so that businesses could continue to receive loans and keep their doors open. The stimulus bill was meant to directly benefit citizens and working Americans by cutting their taxes and giving them a little extra in their returns.

None of this benefits the homeless, Congressman. Many homeless, I'm sure, aren't being helped because they can't be found. They're still out there, though. I'd very much like to hear your proposal for how the government intends to find jobs for these people; not for how much they'll receive in welfare benefits or other entitlements, but how the government will help them work again. The old adage remains true: Give a man a fish and you've fed him for a day; teach him to fish, though, and you've fed him for the rest of his life.

Sincerely,

Stephen Monteith

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