Poverty and the Good Shepherd

I’ve been reading a little bit about welfare reform and implementation. One image that really struck me from interviews was that both case managers and clients described the new welfare system as being like herding cattle. Here’s the brief excerpt from Disciplining the Poor:

Indeed, case managers and clients often converge in striking ways as they describe relationships that center on paternalist power relations and the rote processing of documents. In chapter 10, we noted the WT case manager who described her job as “herding cattle”: “A cattle herder is just running people through, not taking time to look after them. A shepherd takes care of sheep, tends after them, cares for them. It is not my nature to herd cattle and now I have to learn to do that.” A welfare client interviewed by Soss (2000) reached for the same metaphor, among other illluminating comparisons, to convey her feelings of subordination and frustration: “It’s like you’re in a cattle prod. It’s like you’re in a big mill. I felt like a number, or like I was in a prison system. Like I said, it feels like you’re in a cattle prod. They’re the cowboys and you’re a cow. These people are like ‘just be quiet and follow your line.

Christians, are, of course, called to be shepherds, not  cowboys. Running people through a process limits the ability of case managers to actually help the people they work with. For example, this is the story of Delia, in her own words:

This man almost killed me one time – and in front of my son. He threatened to kill me again – in front of a lot of people this time. So I really felt like in my heart that he was serious. I let my [case] worker know that I was scared to leave the house. I mean it got so bad that I would not even go to the store – I would pay little kids around the neighborhood to go to the store for me. So, I am not going to die at the hands of this man because y’all want me to come and sit in a class for two hours and then go clean up somebody’s bathrooms. And I tried to ask them to put me somewhere else on the other side of town. Nobody could do that. You know what I’m saying? None of them could put me nowhere else. I was just sanctioned.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are policies that work, like extending child care and other supports for work. Again from Disciplining the Poor:

Most studies find that the most disadvantaged clients, who face significant barriers to work, are the most likely to be sanctioned, and that sanctions tend to exacerbate their problems (Meyers et al. 2006; Cherlin et al. 2002; Wu et al. 2006). These findings fit the general pattern of negative or null effects associated with most disciplinary TANF tools, such as time limits and work requirements, in contrast to the more positive effects of extending child care and other work supports (Looney 2005; Grogger 2003).

The terrible truth is that our welfare system focuses on discipline rather than support not because it works, but because we have already decided that the poor are lazy. Rather than acknowledge that our world is broken by sin and that people sometimes face barriers and need our help we have decided to punish those who are least able to care for themselves. The Gospel tells us to show our love by feeding God’s sheep (John 21:15-17). The Good Shepherd knows his sheep and calls them by name, and the sheep respond to the sound of his voice (John 10:14). In the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptist ask Jesus if he is the one who is to come or if they should wait for another. Jesus’ answer is beautiful, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind recieve their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Luke 7:22). If someone asked us if we are the Church that they have heard about or should they wait for another, would be be able to answer like Jesus?



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