Recently a reader kindly referred me to an article by the Christian conservative writer Star Parker. President of a right-wing think tank with the benevolent name of Center for Urban Renewal and Education (CURE), Ms. Parker maintains that providing subsistence to poor people is tantamount to slavery, with Uncle Sam cast as the master who “welcomed mostly poor black Americans onto the government plantation.” As a teenager and young mother, she was on welfare, and she apparently views herself as one of the escapees from the “plantation,” a woman who climbed the capitalist ladder to independence and affluence.
She did climb that ladder and now appears to be thriving and enjoying her role as an advocate for free-market economics. But here’s the fly in the ointment of her argument: It was the (allegedly) insidious “welfare state” that threw her that ladder. While on welfare, Parker was able to raise her children and attend college part-time, eventually obtaining a degree in marking and the writing skills she now uses to disparage public support programs.
I’ve worked with needy families throughout my career as a counselor and educator. I know two things about poverty: 1) it’s always determined by a complex of factors, and 2) people are seldom if ever able to pull themselves out of it without assistance. (It’s hard to "pull yourself up by the bootstraps” if you have no boots.)
One of the things that used to contribute to poverty was a family culture of dependence that could allow people to continue getting public assistance without getting the education and job skills necessary to work their way out. The welfare reform act signed by President Clinton in 1996 provided a much more nuanced, constructive approach to public assistance, giving recipients new incentives and opportunities—punching some new exit holes in the walls of the welfare system and giving poor people more ways out of dependence on social services.
As I go about my daily business, I see former students and clients all over town whose families were once on welfare—nurses, teachers, and small business owners who are making wonderful contributions to the community that gave them the tools they needed to succeed. Like Ms. Parker, they are a tribute to a society that combines compassionate “socialism” with the economic opportunities of capitalism. It’s neither one nor the other of these basic approaches to public policy that makes for a great country—it’s a rational balance of the two.
Show me a Star Parker who somehow made the leap from poverty to affluence without the help of any social supports, and I’ll be glad to listen to whatever he or she may have to say about the evils of “socialism.”