Eighty years ago during The Great Depression an all too familiar sight throughout the country was long lines of unemployed men patiently waiting for a monthly government issued food allotment. My father, Vincent Schaeffer, was haunted for the rest of his life by the memory of a neighbor, old Mr Schmidt, crying in shame as he returned to his house across the street with his government handout. The Schmidt family was literally starving but there was no work available in the small town of Pottsville, Pennsylvania for an older skilled mechanic.
The Schaeffer family was more fortunate. My father was young and strong and able to avoid the bread lines on behalf of his parents by helping to build roads on a Works Progress Administration (WPA) job administered on the local level with federal funds.
Unfortunately this did not avoid repossession of the Schaeffer home by the bank the previous year for lack of $750 that remained on a mortgage my grandfather could not pay. To add insult to injury, the Schaeffers became tenants of the bank in the house they had almost owned.
This was an era of compassion by a limited government coupled with church and
benevolent foundations. Limited assistance was provided to a financially devastated citizenry. Human nature, being what it is, allowed a portion of society to profit at the expense of the vulnerable. Ironically it was WWII, not The New Deal,that ended the Great Depression, but that's a story for another day.
If you've read this column over time you realize my political and social philosophy is right of center, therefore you might ask why I start this column with a recount of history where unbridled capitalism is viewed in an unpleasant light. It is my contention that a historical investigation of a problem is necessary before we shoot from the hip with solutions that inadvertently cause more harm than good. Let me explain by fast forwarding to the mid 60's.
During the Administration of Lyndon B Johnson the horrors of the Great Depression were recalled by the President. As a poor Texan President Johnson witnessed the national misery first hand. He was determined to eradicate poverty in America once and for all. His battle plan and subsequent program was " The War on Poverty" It was an ill conceived approach of throwing gobs of government money at the problem. The War on Poverty became the perfect example of the old proverb "give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and he'll feed himself forever." What Johnson inadvertently created was third generation families still on the dole today.
Here we are in the 21st century where over dependence on government programs has
become part of the national fabric. Government has shifted from administering a safety net of compassion to becoming an enabler in an epidemic of dependence. Last year we spent hundreds of billions of federal and state taxpayer dollars to reduce poverty. Over 100 million people are receiving some form of government aid. Despite this unprecedented effort to tackle the problem several private foundations report that one in six children go to bed hungry. Am I surprised? Not in the least! We are administering a potpourri of overlapping government programs to be utilized, in part, by some of the most dysfunctional parents in society. This comes at a time when it's politically incorrect
to question anything intended for the elderly or children. Do we want to see all these programs eliminated? Certainly not! Do we want to minimize inefficiency, fraud, and duplication of effort? Of coarse we do!
Every now and then we see progress in teaching the unfortunate to fish. President Clinton introduced reform during his administration that tied work requirements and training to welfare receipt of federal dollars. Unfortunately President Obama is, by Executive order, eliminating the federal mandate. From the lessons of history, this is a bad move.
Down East I have a nephew who helps with the local fire department's effort to
distribute food baskets to the needy at Christmas. The unofficial policy of that fire department is: Before ringing the doorbell on the front porch of the "needy" family, the volunteer is to look in the front room window. If the wall mounted flat screen TV is over 42 inches they are to leave and save their limited resources for an elderly couple or a widow.
Somewhere above old Mr Schmidt is sadly shaking his head.
Retired Consulting Engineer and Farmer