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We’ve all heard the saying, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” Helping someone care for their own needs rather than just offering a handout is clearly the better approach. And yet many on the right feel that any taxpayer-funded program that helps people take care of themselves is somehow instead hurting them. One of my former missionary colleagues describes most of this “purported” aid as “giving someone a check,” insisting that the only thing it accomplishes is to make the recipient feel both entitled and dependent. Perhaps we should rephrase the left’s approach in a more relatable way. “Give people a check, pay their bills for a month. Teach people job skills and let them pay their own bills for life.”


If the U.S. could offer its citizens tuition-free college and vocational training, as many other nations do, no student need get “a check” at all. Students instead gain access to classrooms and teachers. They gain access to information, tutoring, labs, and fieldwork. They gain access to job and career competency so they can succeed in the workplace and provide for themselves and their families. This means a reduction in demand for taxpayer dollars directed to food assistance or subsidized housing. A reduction in demand for funds directed to jails and prisons filled with those spurred to find “alternate” methods of employment.

If the U.S. could offer its citizens genuine socialized healthcare, lowering the cost of drugs and medical supplies as an essential ingredient, as a nation we’d spend far less on healthcare than we do now.

If the U.S. could offer its citizens genuine socialized healthcare, lowering the cost of drugs and medical supplies as an essential ingredient, as a nation we’d spend far less on healthcare than we do now. Those are funds that can be spent on consumer goods, on renewable energy research, on roads and bridges. With guaranteed healthcare (and guaranteed sick leave), fewer workers would need to come to work sick, spreading their cold or flu or COVID. There would be less absenteeism, more productivity. No one will be “giving a check” to someone to see a doctor, with the accompanying suspicion the recipient might run off to the race track instead. The ill person simply gets to seek medical care without having to worry about not having enough of his or her own funds left over to pay the light bill.

“But if we just let people get all the education they want and all the healthcare they need, they’ll be spoiled brats. They won’t appreciate how good they have it.”

To be fair, that’s a real possibility. But right now, the privileged children of rich parents get a good education and all the medical care they want, and no one seems to mind. There are no laws forcing all college students to pay their own way without any assistance from their parents or from scholarships or grants, forcing everyone over eighteen off their parents’ insurance. Why are those on the right only worried about the gratitude of the masses? If getting an education without groveling is good enough for children of the wealthy, why do the rest of us have to clean toilets eight hours every night for the same privilege?

Why is it so, so important for peasants never to forget their place?

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So they won’t dare to rise out of it?

The truth is that students from low-income areas almost never receive the early education they need to succeed in college, even if they do manage to find a job that will allow them to earn the application fee. Adult children of the moneyed elite often turn out to be pretty awful human beings, but it’s only the grown kids of the poor that we like to label “losers.” If “giving someone a check” is so destructive to the poor, we’d have to believe that not helping them has proven a well-traveled path to virtue. And yet we’ve been judging and condemning these folks all of our lives for their moral failings.

Since not providing a good education hasn’t worked either to improve the character of the poor or allow them skills to provide for themselves, maybe we’ve chosen a different motto altogether than the one we’ve enshrined. “Don’t give a man a fish, starve him for a day. Refuse to teach him how to fish and starve him for a lifetime.”

A society full of educated, competent citizens with full access to healthcare is better for everyone, even if the newly educated and competent end up with a little attitude. Because let’s face it, what we have now is a society filled with desperate, unhappy people lacking the education or healthcare they need, and there’s still more than enough attitude to go around.

We may never be able to guarantee our citizens a good moral character. Let’s leave that up to religion and other organizations. What the state can do, and must, is make sure we all have the education and medical care to succeed in life, and that we have at least the remote chance of being happy about it when we do.

Johnny Townsend

Johnny Townsend

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