It is no wonder people feel like the government is untrustworthy these days. For the last four years we have had what might have been the most do-nothing Congress in history. Ideology is more polarized then ever—in fact, the Congress is even more divided than it was at the end of the Civil War.[i] One of the many things revealed by this November’s election is that many voters are ready for a big change.
Some believe that perhaps our lives would be better without the government at all; this belief led to the rapid popularity of the Tea Party. This philosophy of “We don’t need the government!” caught on quickly in a time ripe for a new political expression. The problem is that an anti-government sentiment can be dangerous and destabilizing. (And by the way, the Tea Party is not a grass roots movement, it is one began and funded by big business who would love the option to be above the law.)
Many voters have gotten what they want in an “outsider” who seems to be appointing the most anti-government government in history. In this blog post and one following I will discuss some of the reasons many people have an anti-government sentiment, and respond to them. In particular, does the government help or hinder individuals who strive to achieve the American Dream?
It is clear we need to advocate for comprehensive government reform, without throwing the understanding of and the need for government out of the window. Just as much as centralized power in the hands of extremes of the Right or the Left would be a bad thing, total anarchy is empirically bad as well. Without a functional government countries are devastated in many ways. For example, countries with the least governance in the world are the poorest; Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Zimbabwe, Burundi, Eritrea, and Central African Republic, have either a complete lack of government or extremely poor governance. I think it would be interesting to ask those who want to abolish, or nearly abolish, government if they would like to live in one of these as a trial run.
Many do not take anti-government sentiment so far that they would say we should have total anarchy. A much more common sentiment would be something like, “The government needs to stay out of the charity business.” I would say that this a common misunderstanding of who is using social safety nets, in addition to being a practical and theological fallacy.[ii] The problem is, the rhetoric around this issue has been so hijacked that any discussion of anything “social” immediately puts up unnecessary walls. When I talk about these issues, even with friends and family, I often hear comments such as, “Oh, you’re a Socialist.” Or even, “That’s what the Communists did.” Let me be clear, I am a Capitalist. I am for a fair chance for each individual to succeed.
What is really going on with taxes?
One of the things that critics often cite as evidence that the government should be reduced is government spending of tax dollars on the poor, particularly those we see as “undeserving.” So let’s examine those numbers and see how “wasteful” our government is. Any measurement from left, right, or center shows the same thing: We spend a large amount of tax revenue on Social Security and Medicare. However, one needs to consider that this is money that we put into the pot and get back later in life. Next, approximately ten percent of your tax dollar goes to various other social programs. This spending primarily covers refunds on earned income and child tax credits, SNAP (food stamps), and school meals. A small part of this ten percent goes to housing, childcare, and home energy assistance. The infinitesimal remaining emergency cash assistance (TANF) is very hard to get and there is not a lot of it. For example, where I live in Kentucky, if you somehow do manage to secure some TANF, you must volunteer thirty hours a week to earn it.
The most important number of this ten percent: 90%. Ninety percent of all social safety net money goes to the elderly, the seriously disabled, and members of working households.[iii] You can go to “yourtaxdollar.gov” and easily do the math: If you are lucky enough to make 50K a year,[iv] you spend about a dollar a day in taxes on social programs (not including medical care and social security). That leaves ten cents from that dollar a day that might possibly go to the non-working poor. It is not a crushing load. But do you know what is a crushing load? The entitlement programs for the wealthy and big business, which cost $6000 per year, per household.[v]
Please see my following blog post this week on how these numbers play out in real people’s lives. The majority of Americans believe that they lose a significant amount of their income to those who are not working, and that is not true. What is true is that it is important to hold the government accountable to getting corporations off of welfare in order to allow the average hard-working American the opportunity to earn a wage that supports a life. Many people believe that poverty is something that should be resolved by charitable initiative, rather than by the government. But if the government is creating poverty through an unnecessary tax burden that goes to subsidize the wealthy, and further still allows them to pay a wage that cannot support a life, then we are subsidizing government-created poverty. Rather than believing that the government is in the charity business, it seems more accurate to say that charity is in the government business.
Data that was published this week shows that the American dream is increasingly elusive for most U.S. citizens;[vi] what this data reveals is that civics matter. Half of all the incomes in the U.S. are under $35,100 and a full quarter are below the poverty line[vii] (by the way, the majority of those who are on food stamps are working[viii]) is not a matter of charitable initiative to solve this problem—it is a matter of using our hard-earned and valuable citizenship to advocate, vote, and organize for justice. Cutting public schooling, taking away health insurance, allowing for housing prices to soar, giving wall street freedom to further speculate with retirement money, and increasing the tax burden on the already dwindling middle class is not going to improve things for the majority in our country.
I often hear people say something along the lines of: “Politics do not matter, it’s about relationships/spirituality/prayer/your relationship to God.” While those things are important, what this statement really reflects is that the person saying it has enough money to be above social injustice and economic hardship.
The problems of the working poor and the loss of the middle class are created by bad governmental policies, and if things do not change we will be an unstable and undeveloped nation in no time. That is good for no one. We need to advocate for healthy change—not less government (and not communism), but the freedom for each individual to genuinely have a chance at success.
Often people use theology to justify their belief in limited government. This too is a fallacy and a cultural belief rather than a scriptural one. Government is clearly a scriptural value in the Judeo-Christian tradition, as the God of the Scriptures repeatedly calls for the administration of justice and the facilitation of peace[ix]. Anti-government belief that is labeled as “Christian” is a false separation of the sacred from the secular.
People of faith should be part of the political process in order to fight for justice; the end result of advocating for a just civic life is that all individuals have the best opportunity to experience peace and flourishing. The government is neither the doctor nor the priest, but it is the construction worker that paves the road for the houses of both to be built.
Who Needs the Government Anyway?!
[ii] The main misunderstanding represented by the idea of “getting the government out of the charity business” is that the huge majority’s meager wages are taxed to pay for those who do not want to work.
[v] Especially if you are skeptical about this, PLEASE, check out these numbers and the math behind them: http://www.commondreams.org/views/2013/09/23/add-it-average-american-family-pays-6000-year-subsidies-big-business
[ix] Deut. 16:18-20; Leviticus 19:15; Prov. 3:19, 29:7, 56:1; Is. 1:17, 9:6-7; Jer. 29:7; 1 Pet. 2:13-14; 1 Tim. 2:2