Recently, I heard a story on the radio about the way in which the government measures poverty, and about the network of programs that have been put in place over the years in an attempt to lift people out of poverty. One person who was interviewed in the report criticized the programs designed to assist the poor, saying that it isn’t helpful to create an “artificial standard of living” by giving funds to those in need (in the form of “food stamps”, housing subsidies, and other programs). What is needed, this person argued, is to focus on making the poor self-sufficient so that they don’t need assistance.
It always bothers me when people invoke “self-sufficiency” as an overriding value, and especially when it is invoked in discussions about people who are poor. The implication can sometimes be that poor people are poor because they are lazy, unwilling to work hard enough to be “self-sufficient”. Even when this is not implied, it seems to be assumed that the poor can be made to become self-sufficient — presumably, they just need a job. Well, if it were that easy to move people out of poverty, we might already have done it. But behind all of this lies this notion of self-sufficiency. And that, it seems to me, is an illusion. Because the reality is that none of us is self-sufficient.
To truly be self-sufficient, one would not rely on anyone for anything. From building your own house to making your own clothes to growing your own food, self-sufficiency means that you don’t depend on anyone to provide you with anything. And no one lives that way. All of us are part of a larger community that provides the things that we need, usually in return for money. But to appreciate what should be a rather obvious truth is to appreciate an even more important truth: that because we are each and all part of a larger community, we bear some responsibility for the other members of our community.
And I think it is this larger truth that the woman interviewed on the radio show doesn’t want to admit to: that we live in a dynamic of mutuality that gives us responsibility for one another, and especially for the more vulnerable members of our community. I’m sure that when she uses the term “self-sufficient”, she doesn’t have in mind what true self-sufficiency would really be, as I mentioned above. I think that what she does probably have in mind is to somehow release society from an obligation to take care of its more vulnerable members. I don’t think she has any idea how to do that. Presumably, it involves getting everybody a job that allows them to earn enough money to not need government support. But the dream of full employment has never been achieved in our history. And it is unlikely it ever will be. Then, of course, there is the matter of that segment of the poor who simply cannot work, for a variety of reasons. People who are elderly, disabled, mentally ill, and the like — folks who simply can’t manage a job even if one were provided for them.
No matter how much we would like to, we cannot escape the reality of our interdependence. The communities in which we live include people who are incredibly privileged as well as people who are incredibly disadvantaged. Somehow, as we live out our lives within these communities, we will have to bear responsibility for one another, and for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged among us, that will include providing them with what they need to survive. For those of us who are Christian, the ethical teaching of Jesus is clear: we are obligated to be concerned with the welfare of our neighbors, and Jesus defines our neighbors not as those living on either side of us, but as those who are most in need.
None of us is self-sufficient. We all depend on others to get along in life. Most of us have the advantage of being able to pretend that we don’t. Those among us who are not able to pretend, whose needs are greatest, deserve not a talking to about how they need to be self-sufficient, but our deep and abiding compassion and help.