Dependent (adjective) 1. relying on someone or something else for aid, support, etc.--Random House Dictionary
One of my favorite architectural gems is the Rhode Island State House in Providence, just down Route 95. “Little Rhody” boasts a grand capitol building, topped by the fourth largest freestanding dome in all the world. But it is what sits on top of that dome which has my interest these days, a statue called “The Independent Man”. Weighing in at some 500 pounds and 11 feet high, this lone man, herculean and powerful, perched 278 feet above the ground, is a symbol of human freedom and human independence.
How we Americans love this image and ideal of a human going it alone, the lone man or woman who makes it all on their own with little or no help from anyone. The entrepreneur who starts a company from scratch in a garage and then reaps billions for herself. The solider who singlehandedly storm’s the enemy fort and saves the day. The cowboy who confronts the town bandit at high noon, shoots him (of course never in the back) and then rides off into the sunset, dependent on absolutely no one. Even his best friend is just a horse. Cue music. Roll the credits.
Oh if only human life were that simple or easy. Sure I strive to be as independent as the next person. I’m proud of the fact that much of what I’ve achieved in 51 years has come about because of individual effort and yet the truth is: I didn’t get here on my own. Not by a long shot. I’m not only self made. I’m God-made. I’m communally created too, the product of a family that loves me, a faith which sustains me and even a government which at times has really helped me. I depended and still am very dependent upon people and institutions, even here in the land of the free. I need the whole society to support me at times on my life journey.
I’m dependent. I am “The Dependent Man”, though something tells me I won’t get a statue anytime soon.
For these days the notion of depending upon others, especially the government, is viewed with derision and contempt in many political circles and on too many campaign trails. Candidates decry a so-called “culture of dependence” which has overtaken America. Pundits speak of entitlement programs like Medicare (health insurance for the old), Medicaid (health care for the poor) and Social Security (pension for the aged and disabled) as if these are a civic plague, examples of human weakness and an inability to just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.
This aggressive anti-government, anti-assistance, and anti-dependency philosophy is best summed up in the title of a recent best selling book: “A Nation of Moochers: America’s Addiction to Getting Something for Nothing” by Charles J. Sykes. As the author claims, “In the wake of the Great Recession, we’ve shifted from a culture of celebrating and encouraging those who are productive and hardworking, to a culture where handouts, bailouts, freebies and entitlements dominate.”
To depend upon Uncle Sam for a check to help pay the rent or to buy some food for your family—is that now a moral failing? To depend upon the government for some extra help to pay for fuel oil in the winter or to receive unemployment compensation when you just can’t find a job--is this so terrible? To depend upon Beacon Hill or Washington D.C. for assistance, in the hope of helping the “least of these” our neighbors: the poor, the disabled, the homeless, and the sick. Is this really so unreasonable?
Me? I know my family and I are dependent upon the government sometimes. My retired Mom and Grandfather receive excellent healthcare courtesy of a federal government program. As a veteran my father was very well cared for in the last years of his life in part because of the Veterans Administration. I went to a public university because my neighbors in Massachusetts paid taxes making tuition affordable for a middle class kid. I went to grad school because Uncle Sam backed my loans. Parishioners of mine, between jobs and struggling, never lost their health insurance because the state I live in guarantees health care for every citizen and part of that tab is picked up by the feds. I once worked with developmentally disabled adults whose housing costs were subsidized by the government. Otherwise they would not have been able to live and work on their own.
Are all of these folks really “moochers”? I’m no socialist, to use the pejorative swipe some so casually toss around. I work for a charitable institution which also takes responsibility for doing our small part in housing the homeless and feeding the hungry. I too worry about rising government debt. I know that all our entitlement programs need to be reformed both through reasonable tax increases and benefit cuts, something neither Presidential candidate has the courage to say out loud. I get that.
But as a person of faith I passionately and fully believe that our nation has a moral and ethical responsibility to help folks who are in need, who are hurting, the ones who have been beaten down by the harder edges of bare knuckles capitalism. No political philosophy should ever trump our communal commitment to show compassion to our neighbors. No miraculous economic system or “opportunity society” will ever be able to completely eliminate human suffering, poverty or the dependency of the few on the many for help.
I’m with Jesus, when he says, quoting the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and sisters and toward the poor and needy in your land.”
Sometimes I’m independent as a human being and citizen. But sometimes I and millions of our fellow citizens are dependent and just need some help and care from the government. When did that become such a civic sin?