I rarely do this, maybe the 3rd or 4th time in my years of blogging on several blogs, but yesterday I pulled the plug on a rapidly written post that I sorely bungled. I bungled it, in my opinion, by not giving enough explanation to avoid having several people draw unintended and unnecessary offense. Sorry to those of you who posted 11 comments in the six hours that it was up. To the majority of you who were upset and angry, your comments weren’t wasted. I did take it to heart and realize I had conveyed meanings utterly unintended. Here’s the background to the hastily-written post, for those who care, with what I hope is a more proper way of presenting my thoughts on the issue of caring better for those who are in need.
After visiting some friends doing research at a university and inquiring not just about their research but about their workload, I came away quite surprised at how difficult university life has become since my days in academia. Acceptance rates for research proposals have plummeted. The challenges of obtaining funding are more painful than ever, resulting in arduous hours and frequent disappointment. I asked a professor friend why it’s so hard now. Whether you agree or not, he said the stimulus program had been part of the problem. That was not what I expected at all. He explained that when Congress started dishing out billions of extra dollars to stimulate the economy, there was a flood of new money going to universities and research institutions, which resulted in a surge in hiring of staff. Now those new mouths need to be fed with a shrinking supply of funds. Thus, professors have to write more and more proposals with declining acceptance rates. The good intentions of the stimulus program created an imbalance that is now causing long-term pain, in his opinion. Perhaps that’s related to the kind of pain we’ve seen here in Wisconsin, with years of overspending now catching up to us (or, according to one perspective, failure to raise taxes fast enough), leading to unpleasant consequences with no easy answers.
During the same week, I had visited a national park and encountered another lesson in the long-term pain that can arise from the unintended consequences of well-intended actions. I finally learned the reason for all the “Do Not Feed the Animals” signs in our parks. A detailed explanation from the National Park Service indicated that humans feeding the other animals in the park often leads to their death. Apart from the poor nutrition and harmful foods we might give, a potentially bigger problem is that animals who get fed by humans may teach their young to feed that way instead of learning what it takes to survive in nature. When the tourists go away in winter, those animals that learned to look to humans for food may die a slow death of starvation. Kind intentions can sometimes have unkind consequences.
I was considering the issue of unintended consequences and especially the problems that can occur when government bureaucracy steps in to solve a problem, as allegedly reflected in the short-term effects of the stimulus program or the long-term effects of the War on Poverty, where financial incentives were somehow created for children to be raised without fathers, arguably contributing sharply to the decay of families (also see Thomas Sowell’s argument that it increased dependency instead of lifting people out of poverty). So often there are unintended consequences, especially when impersonal systems tackle the unique needs of individuals. What is meant to help, if done poorly, can make things worse.
In drawing insights about unintended consequences from the care of wild animals, I am in no way insinuating that any of you are like them any more than I am. Ditto, tame readers, for the parallel drawn to wild professors.
My post didn’t tell the university perspective I had been considering or adequately present the issue of unintended consequences and the need to consider the unique needs of each individual when caring for each other. Some of you assumed (or wanted to assume?) that I was saying that the poor are like animals that we shouldn’t feed. No, absolutely not. Some turned it into a racial issue. Gag. I am all for vigorously caring for the needy. I mean that sincerely. It is our mandate from God, in fact. I am close to a number of people in extreme circumstances and understand a part of their endless frustrations and desperation. We may all be there one day or at various stages in our lives. Indeed, we are all needy and beggars before God, relying on His goodness constantly, admit it or not. Our goal, as brothers and sisters, is to help each other, to do more for each other, and to do it in love. One need not be in good economic health to be part of God’s work in helping others–we can serve with our might or our mites.
Of the various ways out there to help, some can be impersonal and even harmful due to unintended consequences. Some can lift and provide help when and where it is needed. Government programs sometimes do that, and it’s great when it happens. Church programs sometimes don’t, and it’s sad when that fails. But each of us can do better and can do more. In each case, we should seek to do what really helps others in the long term. What makes us feel good and look good isn’t always what is needed most. That takes more work, more listening, and sometimes a lot more investment of time and money.
I feel that the principles of the LDS Welfare Program, as discussed in my aborted post, are consistent with these thoughts. The LDS Welfare Program includes the concepts that the long-term benefits of individuals and families are key, with unique needs being considered in prayer and love. Doesn’t always happen, but those are the principles and they are inspired ones. There isn’t a Kafkaesque bureaucracy to deal with nor vast tomes of code regulating what can and can’t happen (but there are constraints, realities, and some rules). There aren’t endless forms to fill our and long lines to stand in (though results and expediency vary). The goal is not to create dependency but to create independence and self-esteem.
It doesn’t always work, but I’ve seen it work well, wonderfully well. I’ve seen good people in trying circumstances receive generous and personalized help from people who know and love them, helping them to get back on their feet and cope with the ongoing trials of mortality with more hope than before. I’ve seen it lift givers and recipients and help them both feel more part of a family of God’s children. Yes, I’ve also seen and participated in failed or botched efforts also. And like some of the people we’ve handed money to, we’ve seen good intentions fall flat. I’m thinking, for example, of a man last year who told me with a big smile that he was going to use the money he had just received to buy crack cocaine–it was an extreme case that was really my fault for being rather foolish; it was right to help, but I should have helped him in a better way. I’ll tell the story one day because it’s a surprising part of a longer tale wherein God kindly applies another classic 2 x 4 to my forehead, a store that I must share–don’t ask why now. (I might call it “Finding Moses.”)
We need to help the poor, and we need systems and programs to deal with challenges. However, we can’t rely on systems; we can’t rely solely on others to do the work. Each of us as individuals has talents, abilities, and perhaps material resources that we can apply at various times in our lives to help those around us. When someone is struggling, we cannot always assume that the bishop or the government has it all taken care of. There are still financial constraints and other barriers that can limit what they can do. If we open our minds and listen to the promptings of the Spirit, we may find that we can and should do something extra for someone we know or perhaps a stranger. It can be amazing to watch what a little kindness can do to lift someone else. Sometimes a simple word of advice and encouragement, like the man who literally lifted a finger in my previous post on bighorn sheet, is what is needed. Cash, on the other hand, has its merits, and now is a good time to be generous: once it loses its value, it does nobody any good. (But also invest a portion in commodities or other things that will retain value when the dollar tanks. And building a good food storage can be one of the kindest things you can do for the needy of the future.)
I believe when done prayerfully, seeking revelation on how to help, the risk of doing harm instead of good is greatly reduced. That applies to bishops managing the welfare program as well as each of us managing what resources we might have. Doing real good is not easy, but should be our task and goal.
Frankly, often the best way to help someone who is hungry is to give them a fish. You can feed a person for a day by giving them a fish–not bad! On the other hand, if you teach that man to fish and get him hooked, you can help lead that man to a life of heavy debt (boat, gear, etc.), heavy drinking (the basis for ice fishing), and long-term marital trouble (gone every weekend). A nasty boatload of unintended consequences. Now is that what you really wanted to do?
Anyway, sorry for the misunderstanding from my recent now-yanked post, and thanks for your patience. Now let’s get out there and do some lasting good
Update: As an example of a bad way to help the poor with possible unintended consequences, consider the minimum wage program. Read the 1996 Joint Economic Committee report on the minimum wage. Though intended to help the poor, there is a credible case that it’s real result is to destroy jobs and opportunity, the thing the poor need most. The poor tend not to have jobs. How many of them would be helped if we set the minimum wage, to say, $100 an hour? A lot of poor people wouldn’t suddenly become well off. More poor people and many high-school and college students would suddenly become unemployed. Let’s create jobs, or allow the market to create jobs, rather than telling employers they can’t hire people unless they can afford to pay a certain wage. Well, that’s just my crazy idea. It must feel good to pass a minimum wage law and think you are now raising salaries for millions of needy Americans, but the reality may be that you’re raising barriers.
Update, April 12, 2011: See also “The Minimum Wage: Washingtons Perennial Myth” by by Matthew B. Kibbe and Minimum Wage Hikes Deserve Share of Blame for High Unemployment by Dennis Mitchell, with a great Economics 101 video by Orphe Divounguy.