This past week, October 14-18, the campus initiative Raise Your Hand UGA hosted a Social Justice Week. One of the events held was a poverty simulation in which students were grouped into pretend “families” and given a particular financial situation. Each of these families represented a family living in poverty in the United States today; the object of the simulation was for each family to better their situation by seeking employment, fully paying their gas and grocery bills and keeping their children in school. The simulation helped students understand the hardships of low-income families and emphasized the inequality of opportunity in heavily-concentrated low-income communities.
Even with government and voluntary civil organizations working to ameliorate this substantial problem, it was still very difficult for family groups in the simulation to improve their situation or move up the economic ladder because of gaps in education opportunity and job availability.
There has been great debate among politicians and citizens alike over the extent to which the United States government should take the burden of poverty upon its shoulders, and over the extent to which government is effective at poverty relief. The recent rollout of the 2010 health care reform, popularly known as Obamacare, is the debate in microcosm.
Here, a distinction must be made. The University of Georgia has categorized this event as a part of its Social Justice Week, but what exactly is social justice? The concept has a long and respected tradition in Western and especially Christian thought, but today, answers to the question are usually vague — “social justice” seems to have no concrete definition beyond societal problem-solving. Proponents of social justice often espouse “equality,” but just as often use the rhetoric of equality of opportunity to support policies mandating equality of results.
Once we move beyond the issue of terminology, there are yet more questions: to what extent can poverty be defined as a social justice issue, and to what extent is it merely an issue of economic reality? By extension, where poverty is a matter of public concern, what should be done about it?
While it is certainly admirable that the government maintain a social safety net, there are also hard limits to government funding, debt ceiling or no. Sovereign nations have credit limits; more importantly, sovereign nations do not have money of their own, apart from what they take from their citizens.
Additionally, we must consider the purpose of poverty relief, which is ostensibly to provide a helping hand to those in dire straits, not a crutch for middle class Americans, who are the recipients of 58 percent of all “entitlement” spending. In the coming years, hard choices will need to be made to determine who receives benefits and who does not. Here, a reasonable point of consensus can be reached to protect limited anti-poverty programs for the very poorest, while making cuts for those middle- and lower-middle class families who by no reasonable measure live in poverty.
The common outcry of our day — arising over stories about abuse of poverty programs like disability benefits — suggests that the government may have overstepped its bounds by providing too much money to individuals who are perfectly well off to live without it. If we, as Americans, wish to act on behalf of 46.5 million of our impoverished fellow citizens, we must step into place voluntarily and do our social duty for this country.
As Helen Keller once said, “until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained.” It is the government’s job to protect us, and only rarely to provide for us. Conversely, it is our civic duty as Americans to do our small part and give back to the country that has given us so much in return.
—Sandra Davis is a freshman studying international affairs
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