Welfare systems that truly help the poor

President Uchtdorf’s talk during the most recent conference Priesthood session is, it seems to me, extraordinarily important for understanding how we can truly help the poor.  Make no mistake about it:  if you are not helping your fellow man and participating in helping the poor, you are on the wrong road.   To quote President Uchtdorf:  “our spiritual progress is inseparably bound together with the temporal service we give to others.”  Pres. Uchtdorf said you will be “in torment” if you don’t help the poor.

But Pres. Uchtdorf makes it clear that there are well-intentioned welfare systems that don’t work, and then there is the “Lord’s way.”  The true systems include the following aspects:

  • They promote self-reliance (to drive home this point, Pres. Uchtdorf used the words “self-reliance” and “self-help” eleven times in the talk).
  • They involve personal activity on the part of the giver.  It clearly is not enough to just write a check (and in fact, Pres. Uchtdorf says just writing a check in the wrong way to do it.)
  • Personal activity and love for your neighbor will promote unity in the church, drawing people together in a common cause to promote the Lord’s will.

And, most importantly, Pres. Uchtdorf points out the crucial difference between welfare systems that don’t work and the ones that promote the “Lord’s way.”

There are many good people and organizations in the world that are trying to meet the pressing needs of the poor and needy everywhere. We are grateful for this, but the Lord’s way of caring for the needy is different from the world’s way. The Lord has said, “It must needs be done in mine own way.”9 He is not only interested in our immediate needs; He is also concerned about our eternal progression. For this reason, the Lord’s way has always included self-reliance and service to our neighbor in addition to caring for the poor.

What’s this about “eternal progression?”  Well, as Pres. Uchtdorf says, we must look to the Savior as our guide.  The savior spent 100 percent of his time in service of others.  His primary concern was the Atonement, but He also showed us a model for truly caring for the poor.  He led by example.

The Savior could, of course, have issued a general worldwide decree:  “all poor people will immediately have enough money to live comfortably.”  All poor people worldwide could have awakened the next morning to find 100 gold pieces magically appear in their pockets.  He also could have issued a worldwide decree that all blind people be given their sight, all deaf people be able to hear, all lepers and lame people be healed.  So why didn’t the Savior do this?

Because charity that separates the giver from the person receiving is meaningless.  It takes care of immediate needs but does nothing to help the eternal progression of the person giving and the person receiving.  From the Lord’s point of view, our immediate suffering is a small part of our eternal existence.  The most important thing is what we learn during our mortal journey.  If you are given a gift of 100 gold pieces, you learn absolutely nothing.

If, instead, one person gives directly to another person, both learn something of eternal importance.  The giver learns that he is trying, in his flawed way, to be a better person, to do what the Savior asks him to do.  The person receiving learns that people inspired by the Spirit can help him in a time of need.  The person receiving truly appreciates the gift.  This appreciation is crucial because it points us to a way to appreciate the greatest gift of all, which is the sacrifice performed for us by the Savior Himself.

The Lord’s way is different than the world’s way.  The world wants to “solve” inequality and poverty by forcing people to give and then demonizing them if they earn too much money.  This promotes covetousness, a grievous sin.   This promotes contention, rather than unity.  But, worst of all, this does nothing to solve the long-term problem.

Forcing somebody to give does nothing to help a person learn about the importance of charity as part of his or her personal development.  People avoid giving to the government because it becomes a burden.  The giver sees absolutely no personal return for giving because the money is taken straight from his paycheck, processed by a bureaucracy, with a huge percentage taken off in overhead.   Every “giver” knows only a small percentage actually goes to the poor people involved.

A check from an address in a faraway capital does nothing to help the poor person appreciate the gift.  The person receiving charity begins to expect it and see it as an entitlement that he is due because of his status as a victim.

And of course such a system does nothing to promote self-reliance.  In reality, it often promotes the opposite response.  Once the person receiving the check begins to see it as an “entitlement,” he or she is less likely to become self-reliant.  People receiving checks often have a disincentive to becoming self-reliant because they might not receive the check anymore.

The world’s way is as far removed from the Lord’s way as can be.  Self-reliance is suppressed rather than promoted.  There is no one-on-one personal activity involving the giver and the receiver of charity.  And instead of promoting unity, such a system promotes disharmony and contention.  And, most importantly, this system does nothing to help the eternal progression of the people involved.

People who have been truly converted to the gospel want to help others (or at least, they try to develop those feelings even though it is often difficult).  They want to follow the Lord’s way of helping the poor, the afflicted, the widows and the downtrodden.  But people who support the world’s way of helping the poor often spend their time demonizing others who think there is a better way.  If you oppose a certain government program because you believe it will be counterproductive you are called selfish, greedy, etc., when the reality is that you are simply pointing out that such policies will not help anybody involved.  Such policies often get in the way of the Lord’s way of helping the poor.

Just about everybody reading this right now believes in charity.  The issue is:  which way should we do it, the Lord’s way, or the world’s way?

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

18 thoughts on “Welfare systems that truly help the poor

  1. Will Harry Reid be reading this? Real charity requires volition on the part of the giver and gratitude on the part of the receiver. Only in this way eo they both grow temporally and spiritually.

  2. Granted that the Church’s institutional and personal approach to welfare is far superior to any government alternative. Also granted that the US in particular still has a particularly inept approach to government welfare.

    It does not necessarily follow that a libertarian or minarchist approach to a government safety net is always correct.

    Self-reliance is a good thing, a very good thing. The way self-reliance is promoted in practice is that non-self reliant people suffer. Which is not desirable. Some folks will balance the benefits against the costs in a more left-ward direction than I will. It doesn’t mean they oppose President Uchtdorf.

  3. I have noticed that in societies where money is forcibly taken from its productive citizens, those citizens are less likely to give voluntarily to the poor. Their thinking is, “I already pay my taxes which goes to support the poor, why should I have to give more?” They have a point.

    I’ve found that is a very beautiful and heartwarming thing to teach someone self-reliance. It is truly a great feeling to teach someone a skill they never realized they could learn. My husband helped a brother in the ward buy an inexpensive used car that needed a little TLC. My husband showed him how to change the brakes. We heard from this brother later that he was still changing his own brakes and he had taught a family member to do the same thing.

  4. RK — you are exactly right. I served my full time mission in Bulgaria as it was coming out of Communism. People there, for the most part, did not like to give willingly, because they were forced to give by the government for so many years (time, money, kids to the military and so on…).

    I would like to see more self-reliance taught in society, I think it’s becoming a lost trait of American society. Really apprecatied Elder Uchtdorf’s message.

  5. Adam G, do you think our current system encourages non self-reliant people to become more self-reliant ot not?

    Intelligent, informed liberals wouldn’t even completely defend our current system.

    The real problem is that our system includes more than just government and therefore can’t be fixed with electoral change. Our government is still mainly the servant of our society–we have a nanny state because we have a nanny society.

  6. Geoff, I absolutely agree with what you say as a basic principle. However, I am wondering if a civilization might have a responsibility to provide a safety-net for people who are incapable of progressing towards becoming completely self-reliant within a cutthroat capitalist economy.

    In the church, we make welfare receipts contingent upon progression, both spiritual and material.

    But we know from D&C 76, that eternal progression is a characteristic of the Celestial Kingdom. Progression is not a characteristic of Terrestrial and Telestial Kingdoms, many of whose future inhabitants are living among us today. It is precisely the lack of initiative towards eternal progression that defines those living the Terrestrial or Telestial Law.

    Yet God has promised to provide a beautiful kingdom for these people. In the words of Joseph Smith, a kingdom of such glory that it surpasses anything we have experienced on earth.

    So if God is so generous to those of his children who refuse to progress, should we not also at least create some kind of space or understanding that human nature includes many who will not or cannot be expected to thrive within the rigorous discipline of progression in our cutthroat capitalist system?

    I’m not arguing that there should be a class of moochers in society, but I do think that there are other systems of economics that created a positive space for people incapable of competing. For example feudal systems, or communism, which did not force people to compete aggressively, yet gave them clearly delineated duties, sometimes very basic and simple, tailored to their capacities in exchange for basic securities. How is this different than following the example of God’s Telestial Kingdom for these people?

  7. Nate, a few points.

    –A cut-throat capitalist economy is certainly not what we have now, but I will point out that in general capitalism has given us the highest standard of living in world history, has brought the greatest number of people out of poverty in history and has brought incredible technological innovations that have, among other things, allowed the people in remote areas to learn about the Church in ways they never could have even 20 years ago. When I think of what kind of society I would like (in my wildest dreams), I think of government the size of 1890 America with today’s attitudes and innovation. And what happened in 1890? Close to full employment. Those who fell through the cracks (and there always will be those) were taken care of by voluntary charitable organizations. People joined mutual aid societies (Elks, Masons, Knights of Columbus) which provided safety nets for them. They relied on each other. They developed voluntary communistarianism, rather than big government reliance. The cut-throat was not that cut-throat after all (and if it was that bad, why did all those people immigrate to the United States in the first place?).

    –Your comment implies Heavenly Father basically “gives up” on large numbers of people, which I don’t buy for a second. You accept that progression is a good thing for some people (the elites?) but imply that all of the other people must be taken care of by government. I think Heavenly Father sees it exactly the opposite way. EVERYBODY can progress. Everybody has things to learn from short-term suffering and from taking time to help others. A person making $500/month can learn a lot from helping somebody making $100/month (and, living in Brazil, where I saw this happen all the time, I can attest that they all learn a lot).

    –Are you seriously appealing to feudalism and communism? Really? The central feature of the gospel is freedom. The whole plan was built on people learning and progressing because they would be free to make choices. If they cannot make choices, then they cannot progress. It is as simple as that. Putting some lesser creature in a feudalistic society where he is a serf required to serve the needs of a feudal lord is exactly what we overcame when we started the American experience. We are in a choice land precisely because we have created a system where people are (relatively) free.

    One last point: every single modern-day prophet has pointed out that suffering is a necessary part of our progression. If we live on Earth for 80 years, this is a pin-prick of time during our eternal existence. But the lessons we learn here are crucial, and very, very many of them have to do with 1)our own personal suffering and 2)our actions to alleviate the suffering of others. God does not *want* us to be 100 percent comfortable all the time. If he did, he would magically give us money every day so we wouldn’t have to work and he would magically put food on our plates three times a day. But he doesn’t do this because he wants us to learn to do things for ourselves. We should remember that work and self-reliance are central to the Gospel. Governmental policy should build up these principles.

  8. Although I agree with the effectiveness and success of capitalist principles, (it absolutely is the most successful in the history of the world) I take issue with the rosy picture you paint about turn-of-the century social darwinism, as well as the many poor today who can’t seem to get any traction in the economy. I don’t know if you have experienced what a culture of poverty really is like. Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Nickle and Dimed” is a great analysis of the impossibilities of a large sections of the populace to really take advantage of the opportunities of capitalism.

    It would be interesting to speculate on exactly what the nature of the Telestial Kingdom is, and whether God still is trying to get those people to progress. Perhaps that is the case. Perhaps everyone will, for all eternity, have their feet on the fire, and be expected to complete.

    Not everyone has entrepreneurial gifts. Those who don’t have these gifts have to rely on the good fortune of available employers. In a way, large corporations serve as a kind of modern day feudal system for their many underlings. Millions of these employees are not scrappy capitalist go-getters. They just were lucky enough to get a job with people that do the marketing hustle for them, while they work as cogs in the machine.

    There are millions of Americans who are completely dependent on the grace of the economy, and the very small minority of entrepreneurs who create opportunities for them. I think that is human nature. There are leaders, and there are followers.

    What socialism seeks to do, is create a space for the majority, the followers, so that they are protected from the sometimes brutal storms of capitalism. In the process, they may often hamstring the entrepreneurs, that is true. So it is not a perfect system. But I believe that socialism and capitalism mixed by intelligent people, who have compassion for the followers and their limitations, and understand the importance of giving freedom to the leaders, is the best way forward.

  9. Nate, I grew up as poor as you can be in America. Single mother. Tiny rented home. Most of my clothes from the age of 6 to 12 were acquired from the “free box,” meaning they were donated by other people. I have spent most of my adult life in Latin America, and I would bet I know more truly poor people (people who earn less than $100 per month) than anybody reading this blog. I don’t need to read a book to know what it is like to be poor: I have lived it (I spent my youth as a progressive, so I have read many books on the subject — I worked at the Nation magazine during college and wrote for the Progressive magazine. I met and worked with many progressive writers — Victor Navasky, Eve Pell, Hitchens, etc).

    The reality, plain and simple, is that the “mixture” that you call for makes people poorer. We are living it right now. Government involvement in the economy never works. It always picks winners (the big banks, the insurance companies, the “green jobs” companies) and screws everybody else. The only truly democratic system, that will bring the greatest amount of prosperity, is to get government out of the economy as much as possible, starting with the big banks, the insurance companies and the green jobs companies.

    Based on your politics, there is zero chance of me convincing you of this. There is also zero chance that we will see a system that I would favor anytime in our lifetimes. The best I can hope for is that we spend less money on defense and foreign wars and are able to curb the excesses of corporatism in the coming decades. In short, the best we can hope for is a return of the relative prosperity of the Clinton years, when Clinton and the congressional Republicans cut taxes (yes, he cut the capital gains rate, and federal revenue boomed) and cut military and other federal government spending, and we balanced the budget. This is my only realistic goal.

  10. I didn’t mean to sidetrack the discussion with an accusation that you didn’t understand poverty. I was unaware of your background, and you probably have better perspective than I about it’s dynamics. I would however, given your personal background, be interested in discussing in more specific detail (perhaps in another post) how some kinds of hard-luck cases can really be resolved solely through capitalism. My own experience with seeing poverty has not led me to an optimistic outlook on the abilities of capitalism to solve it’s chronic problems.

    But on the other hand, you have a lot of experience with progressives and their literature, and have seen the bankruptcy of it personally. You have seen personally just how devastating socialism has been for the poor in this country, by creating a culture of entitlement, and really, making slaves out of them. I can agree. I’m not blind to the evils of the welfare state.

    But I wonder if you over-idealize pure capitalism simply because you’ve seen how evil socialism can be. Other than the turn-of-the last century time, we haven’t really had any experience with pure capitalism. That was so long ago, and such a different time, that it’s hard to judge how it would work now. Perhaps it would be a splendid solution. I’m open to that. I’m open to trying anything that could possibly work. But you are right that politically, it will not be possible to try anything of the sort. I’m with you on a Clinton-era type of policy as possibly the best viable solution.

  11. Nate, I have lived in three semi-socialist (Brazil, the UK, Argentina) and one completely socialist (Nicaragua) country in the last 30 years. My experience in each country was exactly the same: your success depended on your connections, not your personal attributes. You cannot be a truly successful entrepeneur in a socialist country without having a government contact or without powerful friends. This is exactly the opposite of the American experience, where our best entrepeneurs (Bell, Edison, Ford, Jobs) are still able to be successful by creating a better idea, not because of their government connections. The ability to allow people to succeed because of their ideas, not their connections, is the key to creating democratic free-market capitalism, where equality of opportunity is maximized. Big government has made corporate links to government much more important. This is why Goldman Sachs has so many government connections. In going down this road, we are decreasing our ability to create true prosperity down the road and increasing our similarity to dysfunctional socialist societies.

    As for other examples, I have mentioned this before, but Hong Kong never had any kind of social safety net until the last few years. Yet literally millions of people went from abject poverty to middle-class, upper middle class and upper class prosperity simply through hard work. People in Hong Kong are among the most prosperous in the world. You don’t see beggars (I have spent weeks in Hong Kong and have literally never seen a single beggar). Hong Kong is the perfect example of a free market economy lifting people from poverty to prosperity in just a few decades, and all this took place without government involvement. Are there poor people in Hong Kong? Of course, but they are taken care of through churches and voluntary community organizations and their families. This should be our ideal: voluntary communitarianism. This maximizes freedom, prosperity and success.

    I will continue to push for something more for America, but I will end in agreeing with you once again that the 1990s is probably the best we can hope for. And given how things have gone the last 11 years, that would be a huge step forward from our current morass.

  12. Certainly the mentally ill, the sick, children, the retarded, and the disabled are largely incapable of being fully self-reliant. Recognizing this doesn’t mean God has “given up on them.”

    Now, the best way to care for these groups may or may not be government action, but the ideal of self-reliance isn’t possible for everyone.

  13. I agree, Geoff.

    I guess if I have to admit it, there is an open question of how you take care of the poor best. Even the Church leaders admit that governments can’t realistically implement something like Church welfare.

  14. Adam G, in an ideal society people would take care of the groups you mention as part of the voluntary communitarianism I mention. I am not calling for less self-reliant people to be abandoned. Just the opposite: I am calling for others to step forward to help those who are less self-reliant (which is also what I believe Pres. Uchtdorf is saying). If we start from the premise that government should be as small as possible but should step in to help those who fall through the cracks, but that government should never get in the way of self-reliance, we arrive at something I think we both agree on, which is a small, efficient government, rather than the monster we have today.

    I would ask readers to think about mutual aid societies like the Elks, the Masons, the Knights of Columbus. When government was smaller, these groups stepped up to help the poor. In my perfect world, everybody would voluntarily belong to a mutual aid society that would help take care of the least self-reliant. That would be a million times better than our existing system in every way.

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