I need some suggestions for resources that give hard data on government programs designed to help people in need. I’m teaching composition this semester with a focus on community service. Students have two options:
- Choose a local community service organization with whom to volunteer your time, following up your service with a reflective, autobiographical essay that incorporates relevant research and makes a proposal to fellow students about such service.
- Conduct extensive research about a local community service organization and write a paper that proposes how future sections of English 101 and/or English 102 should involve themselves with that organization.
The course is going pretty well, though not as well as I’d like. This is the first time I’ve taught this way, and I’m a little rough in places. We’re at the halfway mark, and (most) students have started looking into a local organization and conducting preliminary research.
The course text is Thomas Deans’ Writing and Community Action: A Service-Learning Rhetoric with Readings, and although I share Jeff’s reservations about textbooks in writing courses, this one serves my needs fairly well.
One thing I like about the book is that it includes essays designed to complicate our notions of community service, and I’m trying to encourage students to think through the objections that typically arise when one suggests helping people in need. In essence, I want students to be able to place their actions and their research in a larger conversation about things like poverty, race, self-reliance, American identity, and community. I will consider the course a failure if I get essays that are some variation of
I went and tutored local children. I felt good about myself. They felt good about themselves. I thought about how lucky I am to have grown up with a mom and a dad, with a nice house.
There are touchy political issues involved here, obviously. The impoverished ideological positions that characterize American public discourse encourage a binary debate about whether or not people should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps. That’s not a very sophisticated way to address these issues, but it’s often how students will start talking about these things.
Here’s an example. One student recently said, “The problem is that in liberal America, we have so many welfare programs that they take away people’s incentive to work.” [That’s a pretty close to exact quote, but bear in mind that it may have been slightly different. I definitely remember “in liberal America,” which stuck in my head.] My response was to ask him some questions (voiced, I’ll admit, in a tone of skepticism) to try to get him and the rest of the class thinking about how to think about this kind of statement. The following dialogue is a very rough approximation:
Me: Really? Like what?
Student: Well, they get a place to live for free. And they get all their meals for free.
Me: They get meals for free? From who?
Me: Are you sure about that?
Student: Yeah. Not so much here, but up north.
The student seemed to think that welfare provides a pretty sweet deal. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that program? “Have you ever been to a public housing project?” I asked. He shook his head no. “They’re not exactly nice places to live,” I said.
Not such a great exchange, if my goal is to push students to think. I worry that this just came off as “liberal professor won’t let conservative student voice his opinion.” I fear that after this little dialogue, my student is now less, not more, inclined to think about whether or not what he’s saying is true, or how he came to believe it. But there are a couple of ways in which I’d want students to parse the statement: “Poor people get so much for free from the government that it takes away their incentive to work.”
First, there’s an issue of fact: what exactly are the programs provided by the government to poor people? Which government are we talking about? Federal, state, county, city? So I asked for a show of hands, “How many of you know how welfare works?” No one raised their hand. “How many of you know how much of the federal budget is devoted to welfare?” No one raised their hand. Frankly, I don’t know the answers to these questions myself, but I know that if you’re going to make an assertion of fact, you need to be able to provide evidence to support it. I’m pretty sure that in 1996, the laws were changed such that people are limited to a certain number of years of benefits in their entire life. But it’s not enough to say that in class, “Well, I seem to remember that…” I also asked students, “How does unemployment insurance work?” and “How does social security work?” and they provided answers that were about in line with my understanding, except most of them thought that social security was just something you got at 65, when you retired. Medicaid also came up.
In addition to fact, however, is the assertion of cause/effect. X causes Y to happen. If we help people too much, they won’t learn to help themselves. This argument would also be more persuasive if it were supported by evidence. How do we know this to be true? What examples are available to us? Do we really have a problem with people not wanting to work? [Questions of fact sneaking back in.] How do we measure something like work ethic? What do government programs in other industrialized nations look like?
One of my students contributed this to the discussion: “I remember reading in the paper about a woman who said she was homeless, but actually became rich by asking people for money on the street.” In response to which, a handful of students said, “Yeah! I’ve heard that, too!” When I asked, “What purpose do stories like that serve in our culture?” I was answered with “But it’s true! It was in the paper!”
Again, I feel like I’m trying to do one thing and students are trying to do another. I worry that they are framing what’s happening in terms of me trying to undermine their belief system from a bully pulpit, liberal point of view. That is not my intention.
Ideally, I want students to know that they have a responsibility to be grounded in some kind of agreed-upon reality, not in the morass of strong opinion (in which participants make vague references to hard facts) that is the only model made available to them in the American public sphere as represented by a million political blogs and thousand talk radio shows and a handful of television news networks.
[Digression: It’s clear that religious identity is important to most of my students: they usually, but not always, describe themselves as conservative Christians, though the things they say in class complicate that. In a nonconfrontational way I’d like to be able to highlight the gap between Christian beliefs–think about how often Christ encourages empathy towards and assistance for the poor–and the contemporary conservative ideology that encourages a bootstrap, d.i.y. attitude.]
So here’s what I need: up-to-date, student-friendly resources that provide statistics and basic information about government assistance programs for people in need. I’m less invested in the conclusions my students draw from this data than I am having some solid information:
- Here’s how you qualify.
- Here’s how the program works.
- Here’s how many people are receiving benefits.
Do you, dear reader, have suggestions for such resources? And what kind of programs would you include?