Of Strawberries and Stereotypes

While the work of charities is key to helping the poor, government programs can be key in supporting human dignity.

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This February 6, 2010 file photo shows a sign announcing the acceptance of Electronic Benefit Transfer cards at a farmers market in Roseville, California. (AP/Rich Pedroncelli)
This February 6, 2010 file photo shows a sign announcing the acceptance of Electronic Benefit Transfer cards at a farmers market in Roseville, California. (AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

I have a t-shirt that says, “Taxes feed kids.” When I wear it around my Washington, D.C., neighborhood, it barely gets a glance. But just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, a few months ago, those three words not only got glances, they also elicited glares and prompted a stranger to tell me that, in fact, taxes feed welfare programs that make people lazy.

“Poor people want a handout,” the man declared, quickly adding, “I work for my money.” We were in line at a Starbucks in the affluent suburb of Mountain Brook. I was waiting to order a tall latte and grab the Sunday paper, and he looked like he’d just finished a morning run on one of the beautiful trails winding through the community.

“Millions of poor people work,” I told him. “But their jobs don’t pay enough to get them out of poverty.”

“Welfare makes people lazy.” He repeated his point as if saying it a second time might make it stick in my head.

“But what if they don’t earn enough to feed their kids?” I paid for my latte and newspaper and waited for an answer.

“Charity. Churches,” he said. “That’s what helps people. Not the government.” The cashier swiped his plastic card and handed him his coffee. “Charity’s the answer,” he repeated as he went out the door in running shoes that probably cost more than the weekly budget for a family of four receiving government nutritional assistance.

I wanted to chase after him and unleash a barrage of statistics that would have proven him wrong.

  • Charities and churches are doing their part to help the poor but can’t meet the need. They’re swamped and are the first to say that government must play a role too. According to one estimate, proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, alone would require every church in America to come up with an extra $50,000 a year for the next 10 years in order to close the gap. The average church budget is $55,000. Private charity and government assistance aren’t opposed to each other but work together as partners. Many faith-based charities depend on government funding, and slashing state and federal assistance would seriously weaken their work.
  • Poor people aren’t lazy and simply looking for a handout. More than 10 million people who live in poverty hold down at least one job. Many of their jobs, however, pay minimum wage, which adds up to only $15,080 a year for full-time work. The federal poverty level for a family of two is $15,130. For a family of four, it’s $23,050.

After these arguments did their last loop in my head, I thought of a story my religion professor told our class at the conservative Christian college I attended in Michigan. It was several decades ago, but I still remember it.

It was during the Great Depression and my professor was a boy, growing up in a church that took up a weekly offering to help members in need. One of the aid recipients was a widow who had three children. One day a parishioner spotted the woman at the local grocery store using offering money to buy food. In her basket was a pint of fresh strawberries—a luxury no one in the congregation could afford.

The parishioner was upset that the widow was using his hard-earned money to splurge on nonessentials. He reported her to the church elders, who called the woman in to ask why she was being so irresponsible—after all, the congregation was sacrificing on her behalf.

The woman began to cry. It was her son’s birthday, she explained. For weeks she’d been skimping on butter and sugar and eggs to make him a cake. He loved strawberries. The cake with strawberries was her birthday present to him—the only present he received.

My professor said to our class:

A government assistance check would have saved that woman’s dignity. The government doesn’t look over your shoulder every time you make a decision for yourself or your family. Anonymity can be a good thing.

The professor was Lewis Smedes, and he went on to have a prominent career at Fuller Theological Seminary in California. But that day in our classroom, he was able to make young minds and hearts see an unfamiliar part of the world in a new way.

I wish he had been with me at that Starbucks outside of Birmingham. Who knows—he might have been able to change the narrow views of that jogger buying a grande espresso macchiato as he blithely trashed the character of millions of Americans who receive less than $1.50 per meal in nutritional assistance—a paltry amount that comes to less than two-thirds of his Starbucks splurge.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

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