Support for government social safety nets is continuing a steady decline, highlighted by a 10-point drop over the past five years in the percentage of Americans who believe the government has a responsibility to care for those who cannot care for themselves, a Pew Research Center survey has found.
Most Americans still agree that it is the government’s duty. But their ranks have slipped from 69 percent in 2007 to 59 percent today.
Which begs the question: Who, if anyone, is responsible for providing the community with a social safety net?
The question is garnering increased attention, from presidential campaign stumps to the living rooms of regular folks making due with less. So The Post and Courier asked local people from a variety of faiths and fields who work with those in need to weigh in.
Here is what they have to say:
Jeremy D. Browning - Executive director, Charleston Habitat for Humanity
Americans have long supported a social safety net, or social contract, that covers community needs such as shelter, education and social security. I think that support still exists across our community for this system, but the debate today focuses on the number and scope of needs included in the safety net and whether the private sector or government are best equipped to deliver these services.
From my viewpoint as an executive director serving an ecumenical Christian housing nonprofit, the current debate, including the recent Pew Survey, is polarized by ideology rather than focused on policy solutions.
I believe that services such as shelter, education and food can best be delivered through a coalition of government, nonprofit and private sector organizations. Every day in Charleston, organizations from all three sectors build affordable homes, provide emergency shelter, distribute food and educate our children.
Each sector offers complementary services that combined build a social safety net that ensures we give every person the foundation from which they can grow to become a productive and successful member of our society.
The costs associated with this approach are spread among the three sectors, and the success rate can be measured and reported on for everyone to read.
Rather than demonize people as “lazy” or a delivery sector as “uncaring” or “too bureaucratic,” this combined approach seeks to utilize the best of each sector to help those in need. Such an approach is clearly faith-based, utilizes the assets in our communities and maintains our long history as a caring, democratic society.
While debates will still take place as to what services comprise the social safety net, for example whether to add health care, they would take place within an accepted delivery framework.
We must remember that we all benefit from helping people with less as it results in a stronger society for everyone.
Linda D. Gadson - Executive director, Rural Mission Inc.
Here are my thoughts after 41 years of services to families who have had various kinds of human needs:
One of the first justifications that comes to mind for faith believers is that the Bible states that the poor will always be with us. As a result, Christian churches must fill the gap before any government officials become involved.
Believers have a charge to keep as a part of our calling to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper. Therefore, we must help our brothers and sisters who suffer human needs.
However, I also believe and have seen that when the government and churches work together, human needs can be eradicated quickly and that families can be placed in a better position of having a desire to improve their living conditions.
Churches and governments plan programs of training and retraining so that people can become productive, tax-paying citizens if they are able to work.
I really don’t see how churches or government can relinquish their God-presented responsibilities.
Christopher Kerrigan - President and CEO, Trident United Way
We live in an area with an unbelievably high quality of life, but it is not shared by all. Reaching out and helping our neighbors who really need the help is not only the right thing to do but also the smart thing to do. Because we are interconnected, we all benefit when the least among us are better off.
I interact with thousands of donors, community leaders, government officials and not-for-profit leaders who share a common belief: We need to provide people with the tools to take care of themselves, rather than continually rescue them from crises.
One reason you may be seeing the decline in public attitude toward government support of the safety net is that people are tired of hearing the same crisis story year after year after year. Basic needs providers historically have been focused on giving people fish, rather than teaching them to fish.
Our metrics for measuring success in basic needs must move from outputs (number of clients served, meals delivered, toys collected) to outcomes (Did this particular intervention strategy actually change a client’s position or behavior?).
That doesn’t mean we can ignore, for example, hungry children. But we can demand that safety net services be delivered in a more comprehensive way that ensures those children will grow up able to care for themselves. The way to do that is through a communitywide effort to address all the factors that prevent children from graduating high school prepared for a career or higher education.
Here’s a real-life Lowcountry example of how a comprehensive approach works: Our Lowcountry Food Bank operates a feeding program called Backpack Buddies, which provides supplemental food sources to at-risk schoolchildren. Alone, this is a safety net program to fight hunger.
But research shows that kids who are hungry don’t learn well. By partnering with Trident United Way, Backpack Buddies becomes an educational support. Backpack Buddies delivers its services in high-poverty/low-performing schools served by TUW’s Links to Success initiative, which brings together schools with multiple nonprofits to provide support services like literacy tutors, high-quality after-school programs and mental health services to the children, and financial stability and literacy programs to their parents.
When nonprofits and public institutions collaborate using common metrics and strategies, we get results. Today, 87 percent of Links children have increased their reading scores, 83 percent their math scores and 91 percent improved their behavior — the three most important predicators of high school graduation.
As our region sees public and private groups innovating, collaborating and measuring their safety net results together, people will gain greater confidence and willingness to share their philanthropic resources and support public investments in changing lives. Because ultimately, we all want everyone in our community to have a chance to succeed.
The Rev.Joseph Darby Senior pastor, Morris Brown AME Church
Faith-based groups, nonprofits and philanthropic foundations cannot assume the role played by the governmental “safety net” embraced in our nation’s core documents. The preamble to our Constitution says that we aspire to “promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity,” and we profess in our Pledge of Allegiance to be “one nation under God.”
Those statements indicate what America should be — a nation that encourages personal initiative, achievement and accountability while seeing that those who face chronic or episodic economic need are made whole and empowered to compete and achieve.
If we are “one nation under God,” then we should remember the scriptural mandates embraced by many people of faith: to love others as we love ourselves, to see to the needs of those who are struggling and, as stated by the biblical Micah, to “act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.”
Those who are hungry and homeless, those without access to affordable health care that focuses on wellness and those who have been kept on the margins of society because of their color or economic class have a harder time “securing the blessings of liberty.”
It’s more than reasonable for the government to address those concerns, so that those we encourage to “lift themselves up by their bootstraps” will at least have boots.
During my tenure as its president, the South Carolina Christian Action Council issued a call for our state’s Legislature to craft a “moral budget” that is fiscally prudent but also takes into account the needs of our citizens. We did so in part as a response to those who said that churches and private benefactors could come together and provide for the needy.
Many churches and groups of churches have done so for years and are still doing so, but there’s a limit to what churches that have other ministry expenses and that have also felt the effects of the last six years of economic struggle can do.
Some churches also — for sometimes dubious reasons of their own — pick, choose and restrict the pool of those they assist.
Private benefactors have limits as well. One built a private school for children of modest means in downtown Charleston, but no others have stepped forward to do the same. The governor’s philanthropic foundation has adopted a rural school district, but their first initiative was to improve an athletic field and not to provide educational resources.
The argument that government should take a “hands off” position also can fade when economic need hits home. The past six years have seen some who once condemned government for helping the needy change their tunes when they had to apply for governmental assistance to make ends meet.
Our government provides economic incentives to lure businesses and has bailed out troubled banks. If we have an economic interest in promoting the general welfare of the powerful, then we also have a moral responsibility to promote the general welfare of those in need.
Dr. Ishaq Zahid - Past president of the Central Mosque of Charleston, associate professor emeritus at The Citadel and member of the Coastal Interfaith Community steering committee
More than 46 million Americans – at least 15 percent of the U.S. population – live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census. Yet the issue of poverty was largely ignored in the recent presidential debate. Also, according to the Pew Research Center, the support for government programs to aid the poor is steadily on decline.
Basic needs, if unavailable to our poor fellow human beings, must be taken care of by a multitier support model.
While each person is responsible for his sustenance, family members should be the first and foremost to help in cases of need, regardless of likes and dislikes of the needy relative. Islam’s Holy Book, the Quran says:
Give to the near of kin his due, and also to the needy and the wayfarers. Do not squander your wealth wastefully; for those who squander wastefully are Satan’s brothers, and Satan is ever ungrateful to his Lord. (17:26-27)
Prophet Muhammad said: “To give something to a poor man brings one reward, while giving the same to a needy relation brings two: one for charity and the other for respecting the family ties.”
Unfortunately, the family unit is extremely weakened in current times. For example, we find that a great percentage of children are now born out of wedlock. More than 40 percent of children were born to unmarried women, and the rate is increasing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
I believe the next level of support should come from the religious institutions. When emergency needs arise, people often turn to their worship places first. To meet growing needs, religious entities are, in fact, trying to be resourceful despite slumping donations in uncertain economic times. They have and are serving the needs of millions, and yet that is not enough.
Islam and other religions teach their adherents to not let the love of this world enter into the heart.
You shall not attain righteousness until you spend out of what you love (in the way of Allah). Allah knows whatever you spend.” (The Holy Quran, 3:92)
Religious leaders need to spend more time in their sermons inspiring their congregations to waste none, consume less and share more. In today’s world, where so many wake up in poverty and go to sleep hungry, each of us must ask: “How can I help?” It is a sin to waste food while others do not have enough to eat. The food we waste in America every year can feed 49 million people per year.
The next tier of support has to come from regional and federal governments because some people do not get taken care of by the family and religious entities. Perhaps we should study the feasibility of establishing county-level programs for the needy to provide food and shelter, learning from the county jails funding models. The federal government should have stimulus and incentives by providing partial funding to faith-based and other community-based programs as well as programs set up by regional governments.
In this multitier support model, the federal government’s presence is mandatory and fundamental but not totalitarian. The government from local to federal, the politicians and the spiritual leaders, should ensure that no one is left hungry and without shelter unless they themselves are facing the same.
The Rev. Bert Keller - Retired senior pastor at Circular Congregational Church and bioethics professor at MUSC
One thing free people do for themselves and each other through the instrument of government is to make and keep human life human. I believe that should be the main thing government does.
Assuring rule of law is part of that, and we do it by legislation, law enforcement and a good court and penal system. To make and keep human life human also demands high-quality public education, a decent standard of health care — and a social safety net to keep people and families from real harm when they become disabled, destitute, old beyond income-producing years or chronically poor.
From the biblical point of view, God’s concern is always for the poor and powerless.
Policies or laws that protect people from falling into poverty and powerlessness the Bible calls justice, and the motivation to enact such policies, or help those at risk of being crushed by poverty, is called mercy or compassion. Or just plain love. Read Matthew 25.
In a democratic and humane society, like ours, government is morally empowered to undergird what we call the inalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Where people feel ownership in their government, this is not seen as “us” helping “them,” but like the whole community acting to safeguard itself.
There will always be room for nongovernment organizations, such as churches and civic clubs, to fill in gaps. And both sectors, public and private, ought to always be inventive in combining “safety net” measures with building human capital so that cycles of poverty can be broken and families empowered to flourish. Education and health care do this, for example.
What kind of situations call out for a safety net?
We think of old age and medical care, to name two, and the corresponding responses of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
We think of having an income below the level agreed on as poverty, and the attendant food programs such as food stamps, free lunches (sometimes breakfast) in schools and maternal and infant feeding programs.
We think of crisis situations, such as Hurricane Hugo, and the aid that came to the Lowcountry via FEMA and other agencies.
And we think of the chronically poor who can find no way out of a culture of poverty, and the responsibility of the rest of the community to them.
Safety net specifics such as eligibility criteria and effective means of help must be settled by policy, but the principle is firm and robust: We should treat others as we would want to be treated ourselves — with a human touch of graceful generosity. Even if we temporarily go in debt to do it.
AmeriCorp and NCCC volunteers along with Sea Island Habitat for Humanity workers move an outside wall into place in this 2003 file photo.×
Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit, ecumenical Christian housing group that emphasizes helping people help themselves to provide affordable housing. Volunteers provide labor, donors provide sponsorships and materials and families moving in invest hundreds of hours of “sweat equity.”×
Kip Coerper, (left to right) construction Supervisor for the Dorchester County Habitat for Humanity, and Jerry Hemmelgarn, a Volunteer and Building Committee member for the Dorchester Habitat for Humanity brace a wall in preparation of putting on the roof of a new Habitat house. The House in the background is a completed Habitat home.×
Morris Brown AME in Charleston.×
Volunteers raise a wall at the Sea Island Habitat for Humanity’s MLK Day Joeva Cove build project in this 2011 file photo.×
Linda D. Gadson sings Amazing Grace with the youth group from Shandon United Methodist Church from Columbia in the prayer room of her Hollywood home in this 2007 file photo.×
Johns Island Rural Mission Director Linda Gadson, holding one of her bottles of Big Mama anointing oil, stops by to see Elijah Cohen in this 2011 file photo.×