We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” — Preamble to the Constitution.
The role of our government was made clear from the onset. Among other things, it was to promote the welfare of its citizens — not fulfill their every need. While this issue is not new, the current political season has again contrasted government’s role in administering social service programs with the responsibility of individuals.
Unlike many government-run programs, most charitable organizations historically required able-bodied individuals to work. We saw the first glimpse of this principle in the Jamestown Settlement of colonial America.
Some men sat around while others built homes, tended crops and hunted for food. After assuming leadership of the colony, Capt. John Smith enacted a new rule: if you’re able-bodied and don’t work, you don’t eat.
Smith’s edict instantly eradicated early abuses of the colony’s social services system. More importantly, it set the standard for future efforts to assist those in need. Initially, most — if not all — of the social welfare programs in America were administered by charitable or faith-based organizations.
While they were overtly Catholic, Protestant or Jewish, they served people of all faiths or no faith at all.
Yet they thought it was their obligation — not that of the government — to administer aid to those in need. In his book, “The Tragedy of American Compassion,” Marvin Olasky compared statistics from the late 19th century to current trends. While it varied by state, research showed there was typically one volunteer for every person needing help.
“Today lots of government-paid social workers would love to have a one to 100 ratio,” Olasky says.
So what happened? Did faith-based organizations abdicate their responsibility, or has the government usurped their role?
Some would argue our current state is a product of both. Yet regardless of the cause, the result is the same — we have an increasing number of people who have become solely dependent upon the government for their sustenance.
So what’s the solution? Or perhaps more importantly, what’s the alternative?
I am reminded of the admonition of 17th century historian Alexander Fraser Tytler. He contended democracies can only exist until people discover they can “vote themselves money” from the public treasury.
“From that moment on,” Tytler said, “the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits ... with the result that democracy always collapses over a loose fiscal policy — to be followed by a dictatorship.”
While it’s easy to point a finger of blame in one direction or the other, I am quickly reminded by my own conscience (and the admonition of one of my daughters) of my responsibilities. It would be easy to say the “church” should be more active in administering aid, yet my faith dictates that I am the “church.”
Likewise, my high school civics teacher impressed upon me that I am part of a government intended to be of, by and for the people. Societies are judged by the manner in which they treat the “least of these.”
So to paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, perhaps we should ask not what the government should be doing, but rather what we can do to promote the general welfare of and provide for the needs of our fellow citizens.
Paul Scianna of south Kansas City is a native of Mississippi and a management consultant. To reach him, send email to Midwest Voices at firstname.lastname@example.org.