Welfare Alienation

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Deuteronomy insists on relating, not just classifying. Poor and needy people belong, [sic] they are not just social statistics. They are part of "your" community and are not to be marginalized, excluded, and victimized as an underclass. Alienation is incontrovertibly one of the worst effects of poverty and dependence. Social policies that increase, and even institutionalize, that alienation (even in the name of "welfare" or "charity") are fundamentally contrary to the relational language and community-preserving intention of the biblical vision. -- Christopher Wright, Deuteronomy (NIBC) pp.191-192.

One of the things I really like about Wright's commentary (unlike the work of another biblical scholar of the same last name) is that he says things chastising people on both sides of the political spectrum in the same breath and rarely picks on just one side. [I can't help but mention the one puzzling statement so far that might be an exception to this, though.] His concern to draw out the social justice implications of the text is impossible to miss. If you're not paying attention, you might respond the way Glenn Beck would and think he's claiming Deuteronomy supports socialism. He isn't offering any particular economic model, however, and one thing he says here is quite interesting if you're tuned into it.

He doesn't say the issue is whether the poor are fed and supported in some way. He doesn't here get into any issues about whether people should do so privately, through their taxes via government assistance, or simply as a function of the church. What he does say is that there are ways of doing this that come across as welfare and charity that in fact increase and even institutionalize the alienation of poverty.

There are plenty of conservative critiques of the U.S. welfare system as it stands or as it was before the Clinton-Gingrich welfare reforms of the late 90s (and I note that Wright is not an American, so he probably doesn't have the American system in mind). Some of them are, I would say, inapt. One of the better critiques, one that was at least partially mitigated by the Gingrich-Clinton reforms, is that the welfare system, not by design but by unintended effect, actually perpetuates the conditions that it's designed to mitigate. I've in fact seen this sort of complaint from conservatives and socialists alike. It's mostly progressives/liberals who don't go as far as socialism who try to underplay this kind of argument, but it's mostly conservatives who make this point in the public sphere. Academics (and most on the far left are either academics or revolutionaries) tend to make these arguments in the privacy of their own intellectual circles, i.e. academic journals.

It strikes me that Wright, who is spending quite a lot of effort motivating social justice concerns, something hard not to do when commenting on Deuteronomy, is also quite insistent on something that conservatives who have serious problems with the U.S. welfare system are insistent on. Those on the left who disagree with conservatives on these issues are often too willing to act as if the only resistance to the safety net of a welfare state comes from those who don't honestly care about poverty. But what I think Wright is saying here illustrates something that became pretty clear to me very early in my political awareness that so many on the less-than-socialist left don't see.

At least a notable strain within conservative resistance to what they call the welfare state is motivated specifically by concern for the dehumanizing, alienating, motivation-sapping, dependence-creating effects of a government safety net with no or not enough strings attached. Some of this is probably still inordinately obsessed with how such things indirectly affect the rest of society rather than having actual love for those who are badly off. But it's always struck me that a significant strain within opposition to certain forms of welfare and certain ways of engaging in charity is motivated not by contempt or disinterest but by love, in the same way that parents love their children by depriving them of things they want very much but that will be harmful or pedestrians refusing to give money to homeless people might be (but probably often are not completely) motivated by concern for that person and the harmful effects of simply giving them money.

I read this after writing this post, but it captures several elements of what I've been thinking about, completely outside any political ideology sorts of issues. It's difficult to evaluate a system that does actually help immediate problems and in some ways makes things better but at the cost of the crucial elements that a more ideal way to handle things would have, and the current foster care system certainly is alienating in the extreme and almost certainly does institutionalize some of the problems it's supposed to solve, perpetuating them from generation to generation.

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