Have you ever spent time in a Third World country? I'm not counting shopping excursions or runs for cheap prescription meds to Mexican border towns. I'm talking THIRD WORLD, as in unstable government, collapsing infrastructure, disease-riddled, population-exploding THIRD WORLD. Have you?
(And no, the Inland Empire doesn't count either.)
I ask this question because it seems that, in this politically-charged pre-election period, the concept of social programs has become a dirty word. Callers on radio talk shows dial up and rage at the thought of their hard-earned tax dollars going toward social services in this country. As a nation, we sneer at the thought of our citizens taking handouts.
I'll be honest...the stereotypical welfare recipient pisses me off too. I don't believe that anyone benefits when you get something for nothing. I believe in the value of hard work and self-sufficiency.
I also know that, when I found myself unexpectedly expecting (how's that for an oxymoron?) in my final semester of grad school and my husband was working construction with no benefits, there's no way we could have afforded that pregnancy without state aid.
I paid into "the system" every paycheck since I started flipping burgers at Carl's Jr. in the Westminster Mall at sixteen. And for a little over a year, while I carried my firstborn child, finished my Master's degree, and secured a full-time teaching job with medical benefits, I took from "the system." It's what I had to do, and I am grateful for it every day.
Now, back to my initial question regarding Third World countries...
I reflected tonight, as I sat at the dinner table with my family, on the fact that we are so blessed to live in a stable, democratic country. We live in a nation where, no matter our political differences, we still have the peaceful transfer of power every 4 or 8 years. There are so many places in this world that do not get to experience that.
I also realized that, like it or not, those very same social programs that so many Americans rail against ("I don't want to pay my hard-earned money to support some Welfare Mother!") enable us to live according to the principles we hold dear.
It's a lot easier to be "Pro-Life" when the government provides help if you're trying to finish school.
It's also a lot easier to have a peaceful, stable democracy when you don't have the kind of poverty found in Third World countries.
Don't believe me? Catch a flight from Miami to Haiti on American Airlines or Spirit Air. Seriously, it'll only take you a couple hours to plunk yourself right, smack-dab in the middle of the most dire poverty in the hemisphere. Spend fifteen minutes walking around downtown Port-au-Prince and then ask youself if you think some good, old-fashioned American-style social services might actually help that place turn the corner in the direction of stability and democracy. I bet you'd agree they might.
A population that is rioting at the cost of basic food staples poses a challenge for a democracy. A country with large numbers of unfed, unemployed, uneducated, unhoused, un-provided-for individuals is a country with large numbers of potential agitators, terrorists, and easily incited people. In Haiti, one can see how easily a bowl of beans and rice can buy the loyalty of a starving street kid. To whom would you rather that hungry teen be loyal? The government, or an exiled paramilitary leader trying to illegally overthrow the government?
The contrast between the haves and the have-nots in Haiti is extreme. The haves get education, medical care, homes, and food while the have-nots often get none of those things. Trust me...many of those haves did not get their advantages through hard work and perseverance. They were just lucky to be born to the "right" father or mother. They are as guilty of not lifting a finger as any welfare recipient in the U.S.
I guess this post is just my long-winded (and heavily hyphenated) way of saying this:
I believe the money we pay for social services in the United States is the price we pay for a stable democracy...that's a price I'm glad to pay.