America, as a society, is unique among nations. We are the most benevolent, each year giving to the needy, both internationally and domestically, close to the sum total of the entire rest of the world.[i] And why shouldn’t we have such a generous outlook—we were founded on principles of biblical morality and compassion. Although many have forsaken the morals of our Founders, most have maintained the philanthropic ideals. Help for the needy is an integral part of our American worldview. Our loss of morals, however, is responsible in part for convoluting our understanding of care for the needy. True help should promote personal responsibility while providing temporary assistance, but ours has become overindulgent love.
If you recall from our discussion of proper parenting in Chapter Four, when children are overindulged they develop an exalted sense of their own importance. Self-centeredness grows, and they cultivate a perspective of entitlement, thinking that what they desire is owed to them. This high sense of self-worth develops in them a lack of appreciation, causing them to become demanding of what they have come to think are their rights. They carry this self-centered outlook into their adult life—in both the parent role [as politicians] and the child role [as citizens].
If you have had any dealings with the homeless, perhaps you have noticed that many of them think free food, housing, and medical care is owed to them. If you know anyone addicted to illegal drugs you may have heard the opinion that the government owes them clean needles or free methadone treatment. If you have listened to those who are promiscuous perhaps you have heard them demand more funding to find a cure for deadly STDs like AIDS. It is no surprise that children, whose indulgent parents cleaned up their messes, have grown up to believe that someone else is obligated to help them clean up the mess they have made of their lives. It is also no surprise that children raised by parents with an entitlement mentality arrive at adulthood with the same unhealthy outlook.
As a pastor for many years I have had a great deal of contact with the homeless. I have spent time on the streets handing out food and blankets. There have been rainy seasons in which I had homeless people sleeping in my home or living at the church office. We have brought them to our farm to teach them how to work and to help them break their addictions. I have given them jobs and helped them manage their free monthly government subsidies. All this I share simply to demonstrate that the comments I make are not merely philosophical or speculative—they have been born from my personal experience.
As a young man, I first began reaching out to the homeless with great enthusiasm. I remember the joy I felt the first time I handed out free blankets on the streets of Sacramento. The enthusiasm started to wane a year later, however, when I realized that those we helped rarely appreciated that they had received something for nothing. I vividly recall one Thanksgiving when I was passing out turkey dinners to the hundreds of homeless who had gathered at a park for the event. Person after person expressed discontent with what they received. One complained because the turkey was no longer hot, another was upset that he didn’t get a napkin, and another said he felt “ripped off” because others had received cinnamon roles and he only had a biscuit. Many said, “Thank you,” but just as many expressed discontentment. That day I found myself questioning how to best help those in humble circumstances who lacked humility.
At that time my mother was president of the board for a well-known homeless shelter in her city, so I called and told her about the demanding attitudes and lack of appreciation I was witnessing. Her response opened my eyes. She explained that the people we had been helping were probably not homeless at all—they were “street people”—in other words, vagrants, transients, and bums. They did have a home—it was the streets, which they had chosen in order to allow themselves an irresponsible lifestyle. She went on to explain that a truly homeless person was typically a responsible individual who was temporarily without a place to live. It was her experience that most genuinely homeless people would be too embarrassed to show up for a public event like the ones we staged at the park. To qualify to stay in the homeless shelter she oversaw, there were two requirements: People must show no sign of substance abuse and had to prove that they were looking for work. The kind we attracted to our free giveaways were not truly “homeless” and would not even qualify to stay in her homeless shelter.
My mother’s words made great sense to me. They helped me better understand news accounts involving the homeless. I was a radio talk show host at the time and had covered the story of a business owner who had wandered through downtown Sacramento offering jobs to the hundreds of “homeless” he met on the streets. He gave up after a couple of days because he could find no workers—only excuses. They all were interested in the money, but none was willing to forego their simple lifestyle void of commitments and responsibility. In that season there was also the account of “homeless” people going into the capital building to pound on Governor Deukmejian’s door to make demands. By the time that story came out I understood the difference between the humble homeless and insolent street people, and it still blew my mind! How did lazy, irresponsible people ever get the idea that they were owed something they had not earned? Where did such presumption come from? It may be inherent to human nature, but it was likely exacerbated by indulgent parents or by liberal leaders in the parent role who had been providing for them.
I read an anecdote in Reader’s Digest years ago that beautifully illustrates my point. A woman told the story of how she was stopped on the street one day by a beggar who asked for money. She fished in her purse for loose change and took a while to find some. In fact, it was taking her so long, the beggar impatiently complained, “Come on, Lady. I don’t have all day.”
Until we start distinguishing between homeless and hobos, and focus on helping those who are ready to take responsibility for themselves, our overindulgent approach to government will only reward laziness and foster greater irresponsibility in our citizens. Under our present indulgent approach, those we call “homeless” lack any motivation to take responsibility for themselves and improve their lives. After all, why should they even think about working when we have taught them it comes for free? All they have to do is look pitiful or squawk loud enough. If the government or overindulgent religious groups do not provide for them, they just have to hold a sign “Will work for food” and softhearted members of the community will enable them with their loose change.[ii]
[i]. American Mega-Giving: A Comparison to Global Disaster Relief; Gary A. Tobin, Alex C. Karp & Aryeh K. Weinberg; Institute for Jewish & Community Research, 2005; America: The Land of Philanthropists; http://www.jewishresearch.org/PDFs/MegaGiving_05.pdf.
[ii]. Over the years I have offered odd jobs to many men holding signs, and have been taken up on my offers by only one. The transients I have known acknowledge that ninety-nine percent of those who offer to “work for food” are running a scam. They know that the message on their sign makes them appear responsible, and that most people would rather give them money than trust them in their home to work.