Until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained.
– Helen Keller
Taking into consideration years of manual labor, over six years of ordained ministry, one year as an information and referral specialist in social service, as well as my current situation; the idea that most welfare recipients are “on welfare” simply because they do not have the initiative, drive, and desire to work and, thus, “better themselves” has become increasingly unappealing to me. Point in fact, this rhetoric almost nauseates me; and it would completely nauseate me, except for the fact that there are, after all, what some largely ill-informed and rather coldhearted people refer to as “welfare bums.” I’ve come to wonder – especially given the numerous honest women and men of upstanding character and integrity I have known, who have received (or still do) some form of welfare – just how many “welfare bums” there really are in our society, though… I also wonder if the welfare naysayers have any firm idea.
Thankfully, the United States seems to be moving in an increasingly favorable direction, at least economically. The Department of Labor recently issued an encouraging report on employment:
Total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 223,000 in June, and the unemployment rate declined to 5.3 percent. Job gains occurred in professional and business services, health care, retail trade, financial activities, and transportation and warehousing.
This is wonderful news – that is, that presumably over 220 thousand individuals are working, who were previously unemployed – but the downside is still the side that’s down; the side that’s been down for who knows how many years now, and can’t seem to “get up off the mat” so to speak, even when employed. Obviously we shouldn’t believe that everything hangs on economics (the corporationist mentality), but if “love of money is the root of all evil,” then money must be a rather powerful ingredient in life, whether an attractive banquet or merely left-over consommé. And other economic facts speak to the matter rather bluntly:
In 2013, there were 45.3 million people in poverty. For the third consecutive year, the number of people in poverty at the national level was not statistically different from the previous year’s estimate…
Many families in America’s struggling lower-middle class – defined to include those with income between 100 and 250 percent of the federal poverty level, or between roughly $15,000 and $60,000, depending on family size and composition – live in economically precarious situations. Though not officially poor, these families experience limited economic security; one major setback in income could push them into poverty…
Nearly one in five American working-age families with children lives in poverty, officially defined as being below 100 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL). Approximately 30 percent of families have incomes that place them between 100 and 250 percent of the FPL. Federal poverty thresholds vary by family size and composition, meaning that families with the same income, but with different household compositions, can be in different positions relative to the FPL… These families’ proximity to the poverty line means that any unanticipated downturns in income could push them into poverty. For this reason, we could reasonably consider these families to be the struggling lower-middle class.
Perhaps somewhat shockingly, although higher education does certainly make an overall positive difference, nevertheless:
Thirty-three percent of household family heads below 100 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) attended at least some college, although just 6 percent of those family heads have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Among household family heads with income between 100 and 250 percent of the FPL, 48 percent have attended some college, and14 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Or, maybe, this is not so surprising; after all, education is not everything, especially in a society that has been and continues to become increasingly specialized, so that someone with earned Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees cannot find suitable employment because s/he lacks particular education and/or training for an open job position, (which is something personally understood and suffered.) This leads to the problem society has recently chosen to brand “underemployment,” although attempting to find, say, day-labor jobs when one has even an Associate’s degree can often be frustrating simply because stores, businesses, etc. deem the person “overqualified” and, thus, place their application into the infamous “file 13.” Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that “in May 2015, the U.S. underemployment rate was 14.7 percent.” Now … how many bums do we have here so far?
Really, all in all, it’s fair to say there are millions of people in our society who would like, and are trying, to “better themselves” and their families. They’re not bums in any sense of the word, and “bum” means “a vagrant; lazy and/or worthless person, who gets along by asking or (perhaps more accurately) begging without any intention of working for his/her just desserts.” Again, how many bitter, conservative-types, who look down their long noses at the under-class, can really estimate how many individuals in our country actually fit this description. From my own perspective, though, at least part of the definition – and the centrally important part – could very well be just as genuinely applied to any number of wealthy people … say, the young dilettantes who’ve inherited all their worldly goods from parents and grandparents.
In the final analysis, a bum is a bum is a bum. Right? The only difference between a rich bum and a poor bum is the rich bum has money; yet s/he, too, has not worked for this money. Like the welfare bum, s/he has acquired money, albeit through different channels. One could swap their clothing and residence – mansion for ghetto – and society at large would probably never notice the difference, except for, perhaps, two relevant probabilities: 1) the former wealth bum would whine and cry more loudly than ever did the welfare bum, and 2) the former wealth bum would stand far less chance of actual survival. We are talking about bums, though, so one could also easily imagine the former welfare bum quickly depleting his/her resources, and so, once again, descending to the status of welfare bum. Either way, the bums are bums, but this likely does not include the majority of people living in these United States.
Really, it all comes down to this, an admittedly old aphorism, but “we rise and fall together.” Sure, there are bums, rich and poor, but the majority of people are generally like people are and have been most everywhere since the beginnings of recorded history. In some way or other, people strive not merely to survive – although most of humanity does do this out of sheer necessity – but also to thrive … not so much materialistically, but creatively, intellectually, aesthetically, spiritually, and communally. It’s part and parcel of being human, or at least striving to be human, to truly “find ourselves,” which is a joint venture, as the late and great theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx, explains:
The element of being together, of contact with our fellow men, through which we can share ourselves with others and even be confirmed in our existence and personhood by others, is part of the structure of personal identity: authorization by others and by society that we, that I, may be, in my own name, in my own identity, a personal and responsible self, however distorted this may be. A society which out of so-called self-protection … leaves no room for the disabled person is not worth a fig.
Amen and Amen. We might just as well alter the last sentence to read, “A society which out of so-called self-protection,” or betterment, “leaves no room for the” poor person or family “is not worth a fig.” And here even the poor, welfare “bum” is more than a para-person, or some creature sub-human; still homo sapien, not homo vilis. Borrowing from Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, “everyone deserves both to love and to be loved,” and from within this communal love to find the “I” of who they are and are intended to be, the unique and divinely-human person they are already. And this entails an awful lot of dedication and loving labor on the part of everyone, but part of this loving labor involves lifting up downtrodden, the nearly-forgotten strugglers, the oppressed and marginalized poor. And this involves an essential change of perspective, a paradigmatic shift throughout society, and the willingness to overthrow and incarcerate the “green-eyed monster” of greed in order to more justly reapportion our goods and resources. For in the last analysis, Helen Keller is absolutely spot on: “Until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained.”
 Carmen DeNavas-Walt and Bernadette D. Proctor, “Income and Poverty in the United States: 2013,” 12 (Issued September 2014)
 Benjamin Harris and Melissa Kearney, “A Dozen Facts About America’s Struggling Lower Middle Class,” as published December 4, 2013 and reported by the Hamilton Project, accessed July 4, 2015
 As reported by Statista, “U.S. Underemployment Rate From May 2014 to May 2015,” as accessed July 4, 2015
 Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord, 736-737