Charity and Personal Responsibility

By Deane Barker tags: politics

One of the defining characteristics of your political view is how you think a government should balance charity against personal responsibility.

Charity is the government giving aid in the form of social programs for the economically challenged: welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, mortgage debt relief, etc. Helping people in need is generally accepted as a hallmark of civilized society and is very much inline with the Christian ideals that the U.S. still overwhelmingly supports.

That’s clearly good, right?  So let’s give out as much charity as possible, case closed.

Unfortunately, the opposite side to this argument is that government charity decreases the need for personal responsibility. If people know that there’s a safety net for them, then they won’t exhibit responsibility in their personal behavior. The chronic result of this will be a society of people who don’t feel the need to work hard for anything because “the system” (the government’s social programs) will always be around to save them, so their ambition and motivation dries up and they just live off the system to some extent.

This is a perennial argument in politics, and the side taken on it will very much affect whether you see yourself as a conservative or liberal.  Liberals generally believe in greater charity, while conservatives believe in less charity and greater personal responsibility. Liberals don’t believe that the poor are poor because of personal choice and that social justice therefore compels us to help. Conservatives believe in a “tough love” approach, that anyone can improve their circumstances if they are sufficiently motivated to do so, and that too much charity kills that motivation.

(This New York Times article summarized a lot of the research that says assistance does not corrupt the poor. But, in reading that, know there are no-doubt similar examples on the right.)

The sad fact is that both sides are correct, based on how they view the group needing charity. This is one of the biggest problems in arguing about this – both sides tend to think that everyone in a demographic group is there for the same reason. Both sides have created strawmen (go read that link) of the recipients of charity, and based their arguments around supporting or destroying that strawman.

When we consider “the poor” as a mass group of people, the two extremes look like this:

  1. They are poor because of circumstances outside of their control
  2. They are poor because they’re unmotivated and don’t work hard enough

And this is how many people view the situation – they pick one of the above, and paint everyone in the group with that brush.  The truth is that there are a lot of reasons why someone might be poor, and different people fall into different groups.


  1. A single mother with four children and a deadbeat ex who doesn’t pay child support. She might be working as hard as possible, but just can’t make ends meet, so has reluctantly applied for food stamps but is trying to find a way off them as soon as possible.
  2. A high school dropout who refuses to get a job and just sits around a smokes pot all day, only leaving the house to cash his welfare check. So long as the government is going to pay him to play XBox, then why should he do anything else?

I don’t think anyone would disagree that we, as a society, want to help the single mother, but the high school dropout can dry up and blow away for all we care. The problem is that social programs are not great at sorting these two groups out. We’re expecting finely-grained targeting with a sledgehammer, essentially.

Now, it’s an over-statement to say that each political view  thinks the poor is completely comprised of one or the other, but the two sides do disagree on the proportion.

Liberals think that most of the poor fit the profile of our single mother – people who work hard, but just can’t make ends meet due to specific circumstances out of their control (the deadbeat ex, for example), or due to larger forces brought about by the wealthy (“the 1%”) involving income equality, depression of wages for the working class, erosion of worker rights, etc.  Social programs need to exist because we have failed the poor as a country by allowing (even encouraging) oppressive economic environments to exist.

Conservatives think that a larger proportion of the poor are not sufficiently motivated, either due to their acute lack of personal ethics, or because they’ve simply grown up in a society that has chronically rewarded inactivity and has therefore ingrained a lack of motivation in them. They believe our society has minimized moral hazard (read that link too) by building larger and larger social programs. Cutting social programs might not fix the personal responsibility problem immediately, but a generation growing up with less charity will be forced to develop more personal responsibility therefore strengthening the country over time.

I think that both sides have the same intent – we don’t want people to have to rely on social programs as a necessity of life – but there are different ways of solving the problem. Liberals think that the problem needs to be solved by the community, and that the poor cannot raise themselves up until we solve larger issues of our social structure like the aforementioned income inequality. Conservatives think that the problem is a lack of personal initiative, and that relying on social programs should not be a comfortable situation, which risks that people simply want to stay there rather than improve their circumstances.

In the end, both sides have set up strawmen for each other. Conservatives think that liberals are naïve and get taken advantage of. Liberals think conservatives are heartless and care about money more than people. If you believe one of these scenarios, then it’s very easy to disagree with the other side and think they’re idiots.

If somehow we could get to a point where social programs existed but only helped those who truly needed help, then both sides would likely be happy.  I have no doubt that the average conservative very much wants to help the single mother get to a point of self-sufficiency, and I also have no doubt that the average liberal wants the high school dropout get off his ass and find a job.

But, until we get to that day – which we likely never will – there will be a constant argument over what level of charity we should provide as a society, and what effect different levels have on our individual personal responsibility.

This is item #22 in a sequence of 114 items.

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