Americans like their freedoms. If the government outlawed the sale of fatty foods, say, or required that everyone put 15% of their paycheck into savings, people would be crying "Nanny state!" almost before the ink on the bill had dried. It's not that people disagree with those goals (we should eat better and save more). Rather, most people resent being told what to do with their money. Things like this ought to be our decision, the general thinking goes.
But does this thinking hold fast when applied those on welfare? Specifically, how much freedom should those on limited or no income have when it comes to spending their state benefits? Last month, North Carolina state Rep. Paul Stam set off a heated discussion when he suggested that welfare recipients shouldn't be able to buy lottery tickets. According to WRAL.com, this was intended to ensure that public-assistance funds are actually spent where they'll do some good.
At first glance, this seems to make sense. Programs like TANF have to be paid for by someone, and usually that someone includes those Americans who earn enough to owe taxes. Don't I have a right to make sure my tax money is being spent effectively? This is doubly true with something like the lottery. For some people it's harmless excitement, but for others, the deceptively large jackpots lead people to play more than they can afford.
Most people think you shouldn't play the lottery too often, if at all. Stam's proposal, however, goes further than this. His bill would have controlled the way those on welfare spent their benefits in a way he never would have dreamed of doing with paychecks that people earned through their jobs. That raises an important question: How can we, as Christians, accomplish these good goals without infringing on people’s freedoms?
Adam was placed in the Garden "to tend and keep it" and we modern humans follow in this tradition, acting as good stewards of God's creation. We also rightly benefit from our work. We are commanded to work diligently so we have good things to share with people in need, and while we should certainly not make wealth our master or be so tied to it we cannot leave it behind, we can and should cultivate the earth so we can flourish. But it is important to remember that good things come from God, and when we help the poor it should be with open hands.
God makes this point very clear in His commandments to the ancient Israelites, particularly in Leviticus 23:22: "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleanings from your harvest.” Those Israelites fortunate enough to own a farm weren't supposed to harvest their fields so thoroughly that they took every bit of food they could find for their own uses. Rather, they should leave behind gleanings that the poor could come and gather after the hired laborers had passed. Once the poor collected those gleanings, the landowners didn't get to decide whether that grain was being used well.
Rep. Stam eventually withdrew his proposal, but the issues he raised are here to stay. Letting go is always hard - whether it's dropped grains or tax dollars - but sometimes it's the right thing to do.