Saturday, October 17, 2015

Should public funds be used to help those in need?

I've written about this before but feel I need to write about it again.

On the question of using public funds for assisting those in need, I’m aware of the potential problem of creating dependence and of the issue of agency (that is, should funds I’ve helped contribute be used for things I don’t approve of).

But I do not see the use of public funds—or even the existence of public funds—as a case of “stealing” what belongs to people. First, I question the idea that anything really belongs to us: we are stewards who have the responsibility to use what we have to serve God and benefit others. (Of course, to truly do that, we need to do it willingly.) I also question the idea that we have earned what we have. Most of it comes by pure grace.

As Malcolm Gladwell has beautifully demonstrated, success comes as much from circumstances (family background, location, timing, chance) as it does from intelligence and determination. We all benefit from services and conditions provided by those around us. Even intelligence and talent, which are certainly factors, are gifts, not something that gives some people a right to better lives than others.

I think it’s clear that there is not a direct correlation between how hard a person works and how much money they make relative to everyone else. Yes, hard work is important. But opportunities and calamities over which individuals have no control make for much of the difference. I know people who work multiple jobs and put in many more hours of hard work than I do who make far less and who deal with far more difficult financial stresses, including those related to health. I do not see myself as in any way deserving my comparatively easier life. LDS scripture, the Book of Mormon especially, is persistently concerned with the problems that come with inequality of income and opportunity. (For instance, see 3 Nephi 6:12.)

Some would grant all of this but argue that all efforts to help those in need should be voluntary. Here’s my problem with that view. Almost no one argues that all our efforts to contribute to the life of the community we’re part of should be voluntary. That is, we don’t support our police force, our fire department, or even our sanitation and transportation systems with voluntary contributions. Most people are comfortable with the fact that taxes are used to build the buildings that house city government offices, even to build a recreation center—and that includes the taxes of those who didn’t vote for those with city government offices and those who didn’t vote for the recreation center. The argument is perhaps that these are things from which all of us benefit, just as we all benefit from the “common defense” provided by our nation. Even those who don’t drive benefit indirectly from the existence of roads.

I would argue that the same is true of caring for those in need, including providing assistance with housing and health care. We all suffer when a significant portion of our community is suffering—in fact, we suffer to some degree when anyone is suffering. We are interdependent.

Last year, as expansion of health care benefits for low-income Utahns was being debated, the LDS Church spoke in support of a “principled approach to health care coverage” (see While not taking a position on specific proposals, the Church statement stressed several principles: the desirability of self-sufficiency, the need for access to health care in order to be self-sufficient (in other words, those too poor to afford adequate health care will be hard pressed “to provide for self and family”), the responsibility to care for the poor and needy, and our interdependence (“we hope the discussion and decisions taken in this matter will be consistent with the God-given principles regarding care for the poor and the needy that in the end benefit all of His children”).

I know from my service as a bishop that the Church encourages self-reliance and assistance from families but also recognizes, in many cases, the need and value of assistance from the Church and from the community. I see support for the idea of community assistance in the scriptures, for instance, among the people of King Limhi, who were “commanded” to “impart to the support of the widows and their children, that they might not perish with hunger” (Mosiah 21:17). This was apparently something required of “every man” as part of their responsibility as members of the community.

Yes, I think we should debate what the best approach is to problems of poverty, health care, and education, and I think we should try to design and agree on approaches that will have the best results. But I don’t think it’s stealing from people to require them to contribute to those programs that have been decided on. It seems to me entirely appropriate to use public funds for such purposes, including public funds that are derived from taxes on people’s or businesses’ income, income derived from work, investments, or other sources.

It can be argued that the Church, within its jurisdiction, does a better job dealing with some of these issues than government does. But until everyone belongs to the Church and is happy with the Church handling such issues, it’s clear that the Church neither should nor would be able to handle all issues of community concern. Nor could any collection of separate voluntary associations currently handle all the problems related to crime, education, poverty, and health care. We need to work together as a community in dealing with these issues. We need to and appropriately can use public agencies and public funds as part of our approach to these issues.