“Uncle Sam Wants You!” That was the slogan used by the US government in its ads to encourage people to join the army or the navy. There were pictures of Uncle Sam wearing the stars and stripes and pointing at you. I am not sure if they run those ads anymore, but I got thinking about Uncle Sam wanting me in a different, more troubling context.
Before I relate the story, let me say that this article is really a continuation of last week’s article regarding our “heimishe shtadlanus” and its hidden expenses. I pointed out then that for all our influence with governments in the deep blue states in which most of us live, the George Floyd riots and their aftermath, Covid-19 and its related restrictions, and government intrusion into our lives, even our spiritual lives, coupled with the increasingly militant “progressive” agenda, clearly comes with a price.
Let us analyze some of what are deemed “positive” by-products of living in deep blue states: a large social service budget that gives significant governmental assistance, especially to low-income families, including everything from food to rent, from heating bills to medical insurance. Let me also state at the outset that not all forms of government assistance are equal. Some, such as health care assistance, is often an absolute necessity, because for largely political reasons, the healthcare system throughout the country is broke. Often, the only choice is to become very rich and afford one’s own decent healthcare plan or rely on the government’s. The average middle-class earner gets shafted from both ends.
Let us continue with Uncle Sam
“It started with a phone call,” my close friend confided. “It was a woman named Chalondra, claiming to work for a quasi-governmental agency. ‘I see,’ she said, ‘that that you might be eligible for government assistance because of your daughter’s medical condition. You might be eligible for thousands of dollars of government assistance per month if you meet certain ‘lack of assets’ requirements.’”
When my friend related that he didn’t think that he met those requirements, she responded, “That is fine! We can call you back in a couple of months. Perhaps by then you will meet those requirements.”
The implication was, “Take care of it. Make sure to figure out how to get rid of/transfer those assets, and we will talk again. After all, you wouldn’t want to forgo so much free assistance, would you?”
My friend said that about six weeks later, he started getting mail from that same agency, informing him that he may not realize that he is eligible for a significant amount of assistance and he should make sure to call a certain number immediately. A few weeks later, he got another phone call. The exasperated agent said, “Are you sure you don’t want to access this significant amount of assistance? It is a simple process…”
Dependency Creates Pliancy
What was happening? The government wants to assist those who may be eligible for SSI and numerous other programs. They actually pay quasi-agencies for each new recipient of government aid that they manage to snag. So, these agencies look for and encourage people to go on government assistance and all but tell them to do what it takes to qualify.
Meanwhile, the government is paying a different set of clerks to audit those same recipients and prosecute them if they were not in any way eligible for that assistance. Therefore, you have this interesting situation: One arm of the government is encouraging people to do what it takes to get assistance, and the other arm is catching anyone who may not really be eligible.
Cynical bureaucracy at its best
The question, however, is: Why would the government pay people to find recipients of free money? As long as no one is asking, why not let things be? After all, isn’t the government trillions of dollars in debt? Are they looking for more debt?
The answer is that Uncle Sam wants you to be dependent on him. Certainly, many politicians running these programs want you to be dependent on them. Firstly, as long as the cash flows into your bank account, you will continue to vote for them. Secondly, dependency makes people docile. They learn that if they want the cow to keep on giving milk, they can’t disturb it. They should be happy and take what they can without lifting their heads.
This is not true only regarding government funds. It happens at work every day. No one wants to antagonize their boss, because that boss signs their paychecks. It is not only at work. I have even seen people become totally docile because they get a tiny stipend check from a night kollel and they wouldn’t want to lose that. It is amazing what dependency or even a bit of dependency can do to your independence and sense of right and wrong.
A Safety-Net, Not a First Resort
This brings me to that quasi-government agency. They are getting paid good money for every person who they sign up for government funding. Why? Because dependency creates pliancy. If you are dependent on government largesse and social programs, you will vote for them again, allowing them to get away with things that you would otherwise vociferously protest.
They are right. It works. We have seen this time and time again.
Now, I am no fire-breathing conservative talk-show host who sees everything in black and white. Everyone’s life has a lot of gray and our frum lifestyle particularly carries expenses and built-in price tags that make it impossible for some not to go on government assistance…and even more impossible to get off.
There is a reason for the government safety net. Without it, there might very well be people literally going hungry or without a roof over their heads. Thus, it is a good thing.
But we must ask ourselves: Is the safety net a last resort or a first resort?
Why? Because the many hidden expenses that it comes with really cost a lot over a lifetime.
The Hidden Expenses
Let me outline just a few of those hidden expenses. For starters, it inhibits growth, initiative and the spirit of innovation. It is so hard to get ahead in parnassah because once a person’s income rises, he becomes ineligible for programs. This serves as a deterrent to try earning more. A person can never slowly build up his income, because it is too expensive for him to actually begin making money. He is stuck at ground zero.
At minimum, before deciding to avail oneself of government largesse, one should consult with gedolei Yisroel and ask if the cycle they are about to embark on is worthwhile. Sometimes, for momentary pleasure it is not worthwhile to take a shiny object that is dangled in front of you.
There is a tremendous price that frum society pays, as well. When the government is in the business of paying rent and food for a large segment of the population, it artificially raises the prices. A rental is not anymore what the market will bear, but rather what the government will give. Houses are priced by the amount that the government will pay for rent rather than the amount that they are actually worth. This exponentially raises the price of housing for all, and the ones who suffer most are the middle class, who are not eligible for the programs but are stuck paying inflated prices.
The same applies to food. When the government gives families a couple of thousand dollars a month for food, they have to pinch pennies far less than the middle-class guy who is actually paying for the food with money that he earned. Food therefore becomes more expensive.
A friend recently told me a fascinating thing. His elderly parents could not take care of themselves, so they moved into his house, each with an aide. At first, he was feeding the aide from the food that he bought for the family. He then realized that he didn’t need the fancy hechsheirim for the aide. He went to the non-Jewish supermarket and bought them regular products with a national hechsher without the fancy hechsheirim. “My food bill was a third of what it was for the same items! I know the mashgiach costs money, but I didn’t think it cost two-thirds more,” he said.
The question here is: Would manufacturers of heimishe products be able to charge that much if the entire community was actually paying with money that they earned as opposed to government-supplied assistance? Is this also one of the hidden expenses?
Another massive expense is that it keeps us stuck and often unproductive. A family of bnei Torah can contribute so much to society, especially when they are not just a number that is batel b’rov in a community with thousands of other such families. Imagine if, after a few years in kollel, a family’s economic situation would force them to seek housing and parnassah in communities that needed them. Imagine how they could contribute to out-of-town communities, enriching their schools, building new yeshivos and kollelim, and spreading their spiritual wealth. Being forced to look beyond one’s horizon and out of one’s comfort zone can, in the long run, enrich the lives of both the families that venture further yonder and the families in those communities.
I remember reading how Yidden came at the beginning of the last century in search of parnassah to communities throughout America, from Fargo, North Dakota to Galveston, Texas and hundreds of other places. Sadly, they didn’t build Jewish schools and yeshivos and lost their youth. Imagine, however, if we went back to some of those places and built schools and yeshivos. We could bring a ruach taharah across the entire country and find affordable housing and lifestyles far away from what sometimes constitutes the “Sedom bed” of New York and New Jersey.
Lastly, it creates a culture and mindset of constantly being a “taker.” A mindset of entitlement. This is not healthy, to say the least.
Paying the Ultimate Price
It is important to understand that being politically connected with governments seeking to give away free stuff can be a tremendous boon for the community and I am not discounting it. Nevertheless, I think that it is incumbent on us to analyze the resultant hidden expenses. They are not insignificant expenses. What will happen when the progressive governments start intruding on our lifestyle by claiming that it is not in sync with progressive values of equality? What will happen when they declare pesukim in the Torah to be discriminatory or racist? Making entire communities docile “takers” may have a price. Will we be able to emphatically stand up for Hashem?