Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Pope and the Poor

From an AP news story about Tuesday's public appearance of Pope Francis:   
"Francis said the role of the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics is to open his arms and protect all of humanity, but "especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison."  
I love this position of Pope Francis and find it the same as that of Jesus Christ.  You may wonder then why I do not count myself as a liberal social progressive advocating free health care, for example, for all.  The reason is that our liberal progressive social system fails to adequately protect the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the sick because of its insistence on trying to help everybody whether help is needed or not.  Just because the poor need help is no reason we all have to chip in to buy annual physicals, flu shots, and birth control pills for each other.

Instead of helping, our current system patronizes and enables the disadvantaged while frittering away taxpayer money assisting middle class and above folks who really don’t need assistance.  We have an expensive bureaucracy that depends on a large lower class and would crumble if the problems of poverty were actually solved.  In 1965 a “War on Poverty” was launched with approximately 15% of the population below some arbitrarily defined poverty line and almost fifty years and billions of dollars later we still have approximately 15% of the population in poverty.  And, because the system is designed in a way that perpetuates poverty, it is the children of the poor who are most likely to become poor adults.

It started in 1935 with Social Security for all and then compounded the error in 1965 with Medicare for all.  The current administration doubled down with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a government takeover of the health care insurance system for all when the focus should have been on a health care system (not insurance) for the poor.  The systems which are means tested, housing and food supplements primarily, ask little of recipients other than standing in lines and completing paperwork on a regular basis.

Social Security is probably the lesser evil because it does not distort markets and prices.  It just redistributes income from younger working folks, whether they can afford it or not, to older and disabled folks, whether they need it or not.  And, since the demographic destiny of the USA, absent opening the borders wide to immigrants, is a diminishing ratio of workers to retirees, the system is unsustainable.  Of course Social Security was supposed to be fully funded by our contributions to the system during our working years, but, unfortunately, that money we paid in advance was borrowed and spent and current payments to retirees all depend on current tax receipts from working folks.

The health care problem is much more serious because the isolation of patient from provider by third party payers including large employers, insurance companies, and government, with congress trying to micromanage the system under the guidance of health care industry lobbyists, has distorted the market and resulted in soaring costs, prices, and profits.  There is no competition and no price transparency, and patients have become pawns in a system that cannot be understood.  Health care has unnecessarily become unaffordable for all but the wealthy.

I suppose all of the problems are in some way related to the currently popular belief in equal outcomes rather than equal opportunity, the belief that no one should be singled out or insulted or made to feel bad, the belief that one lifestyle is as good as another and is no business of government.  The best descriptor for the system that has evolved is probably “politically correct.”

But, the fact is that, while personal loving assistance, face to face, from one person to another, expecting nothing in return, is Christ-like, provision of government handouts, though an impersonal and very expensive bureaucracy, to the poor, with no expectation of anything, not even an attempt at change in behavior, in return, is patronizing, insulting, demoralizing, and enabling.

And, the issue of assistance to the poor is complicated because of the entanglement of faith based organizations with government through acceptance of government funding, assistance that always comes with strings attached.  So, we find, for example, that a Catholic hospital that is required to provide and accept insurance under the new health care law must cover and provide services that are against its teachings.  Catholic hospitals in the USA are caught up in the same complex funding and billing system as secular institutions and serve the financially comfortable as well as the poor.

So, my suggestion is that Catholic hospitals sell their huge and expensive facilities, shrink to a more manageable size, stop accepting government funding, and focus all efforts on providing loving preventive health care, education, and counseling to the poor through a nationwide network of free medical clinics, funding their operations with donations only.  Leave the corrupt health care industry-government complex to the secular institutions.  I’d like to donate time and money to one of those Catholic medical clinics if they are established.  But I'm not coughing up anything voluntarily for these "non-profit" hospitals we now have.

Well, at least I think faith-based free medical clinics are a good idea, but I’m thinking the federal government Department of Health and Human Services might disapprove them if they were to become too conspicuous.

Just a final word on the system we have.  It obviously helps a lot of people but it also hurts a lot of people.  It’s well institutionalized and probably is not going to change much.  So I guess my primary point is that the Church cannot count our government welfare system as our obedience to the commandments of Jesus.  We have to do a lot more, and I suppose that is the challenge Pope Francis has put forward.

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