Many years ago, when I was transitioning my career from Capitol Hill to the world of nonprofit think tanks, our personal finances were very tight. In fact, the year I left Capitol Hill to start my own business our annual income was just over $20,000 — for a family of eight! Only our closest and dearest friends knew we were struggling.
In December of that year one of those dear friends dropped by the house. He opened his checkbook and asked, “How much do you need?” I was deeply grateful but declined his generosity. Later that month, a week before Christmas, I went out to our car one morning to find an envelope placed anonymously on the steering wheel. It said “Merry Christmas” and there was money inside.
This world is filled with good people doing good deeds. Our dear friend never grilled me about how we got into our desperate financial situation. He never judged us. He simply filled his heart with charity and looked for ways to help. Despite declining his generosity, we felt loved and, personally, man to man, my friend honored my dignity. He esteemed me as his brother and saw me as he saw himself.
I often have wondered why we afford each other such dignity in these personal settings but how our broader public systems of assistance, created for similar purposes, lack such dignity? Why dignity for loved ones but none for the stranger? My dear friend did not require that I fill out an application for relief. He did not ask that I recount every circumstance and decision that got us to this point. Nor did he ask me to show him our financials. He knew us. Our application already was written upon his heart.
Yet the stranger must always apply. We don’t know the stranger. The stranger could be a fraud. In fact, we are reminded of these fraudulent strangers every day. We drive by their choreographed begging to and from our work. Oddly, the same stranger approaching us in the store parking lot, week in and week out, always seems to have run out of gas in that very spot. Add to this mix requests for public relief and the stranger in need could not be more distrusted.
I contend that our general distrust of the stranger, though instinctive, is harmful to a free society. I contend that a public relief system built upon distrust of the stranger, though intuitive, displaces exactly the human dignity needed to maintain the integrity of public relief. Last, I contend that unless we flip the script about the stranger we will do more to perpetuate poverty, especially intergenerational poverty, than we ever might save in tax dollars for our “prudent” distrust of the stranger.
The meaning of human dignity today has gone off the rails into politically correct paths. Its true essence remains what it has been for over 2,000 years when Jesus explained it to us — esteeming our brother as ourself. More specifically, human dignity in terms of our poor and needy means that we recognize, accept and live certain concepts. Among these concepts: Life is relational, not atomistic nor transactional; what we do and what we have are not who we are; materialism alone, or even primarily, does not solve poverty, and our obligation to care for the poor and needy vastly outweighs any political sense of entitlement.
When we view life as relational we are much more inclined to see others as ourselves. In terms of public policy, this view also maintains proper balances within those relationships. For instance, caring for the poor and needy is rightly viewed as a two-way street — our moral responsibility to care for our neighbors in need and the moral responsibility of our needy neighbors to live in ways that do not unnecessarily burden others. Atomistic and transactional views of life (the view held most closely by ideologues on both the right and left) defy this dignified balance.
Flipping the script on poverty requires that we flip our baseline for how we view the public safety net. Instead of a baseline absent human dignity, focused on atomistic and transactional views of life, wherein applicants are assumed suspect as they shamefully approach the bench of public welfare, flipping the baseline would assume we are all beggars, circumstances being the only difference among us — a system wherein all are welcome, not judged, assisted relationally (not simply materialistically) and provided sufficient for their needs. This alternative view is the Utah way.
Paul T. Mero is president and CEO of Next Generation Freedom Fund.