Do Poor People Game the System?

“Do [you] know any poor people personally?” Many actually. From working in food pantries, with addicts and “career homeless” I’ve come to know and love many. When I see one of “my guys” sitting on a bus stop bench, I stop and talk. Sometimes we do lunch. Occasionally I’ll buy some groceries or put money on their phone. When I see “one of my girls” walking the street, I stop and talk. Sometimes we grab a cup of coffee. Often I visit them in jail. Occasionally I’ll put some money on their phone, give them a ride, let them use my computer or put them up in a hotel for the night so they can get cleaned up and sleep safe.
I understand Van’s point, but I would say motivation matters. Yes, I have been used by “users”. I’ve been lied to and manipulated. That’s okay. “They” are worth it. But, a few dollars handed to a guy holding a sign is not going to change much of anything. Unfortunately, it often excuses making the effort and sacrifice that is truly required. Many times, it serves to soothe our own conscience and justify our own self interest, i.e. “I gave some money to the panhandler down there, so it’s okay for me to have the latest, greatest, most wonderful thing I want!”
Give the money, but more importantly, give time. Treat them like a real human being. Talk to them. Share a meal with them. Don’t go buy them a jacket, give them yours and do without for awhile. Remember them by name. Look for them. Pray for them. Talk to them every chance you get.
When you are no longer talking about “homeless”, “poor people” and “addicts”, but, rather, Jim, James, Suzie, Angela, Jimmy (yeah, James seems to be a really common name among “my guys”), Doug, Ashley, Ashley, James, Isaac, Michael, Tara, Jeanette . . ., you will be ready to ask the questions that matter.
Do “poor people game the system”? Absolutely. The same way nearly everyone else I know. Whether it is cash to avoid taxes or leaving the tags on the expensive whatever so it can be returned after using it for that “event”, the “non poor” often “game the system”. Coming back from visiting one of “my girls” in jail, I picked up another one walking back into town after being released. The first thing she asked me to do was to take her to get her food stamp card so she could sell it to get cash so she could “take care of her stuff”. This is commonplace. Generally you can get 50 cents on the dollar for your food stamps card. I was visiting one of “my guys” and he asked me to tell the guy who was holding his card that it should have money on it now so he could sell it for $100 to make bail According to the addicts, hardly any of the money they receive for food (usually $200 – in our state, just about anyone who is unemployed is pretty much guaranteed this amount) goes for food.
Does this mean everyone is selling their food stamps? Of course not! Does it mean we need better control – yep.
I don’t ever want to have the attitude, “I’m not going to help you, because you are just using me.” But, I love too many of these folks and I don’t want to help them stay in their destructive lifestyle. Too many times we think the answer is material resource (money). Usually it is far more complex. It is time to stop spreading our “resources” over the maximum number of people and helping so few find real freedom. In the end, it will be far more effective to help one to wholeness over the course of 3 to 5 years and then move on to the next than to pour all of our effort into the rat hole of helping “everyone”.
Though it is seductive to think, “if we can just conquer this big thing, everything else will follow,” the reality is there are many, many components to address. If there are 15 different issues ranging from low reading level to hopelessness, you better tackle at least 9 of them or you are wasting your time.
I highly recommend “When Helping Hurts” (Corbett & Fikkert) and check out whenhelpinghurts.org.

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