“Hearts Starve as well as Bodies; Give Us Bread but Give Us Roses”

By Rachel Schmidt
Novermber 20, 2015

Some policymakers believe the more support the government provides the less motivated people in poverty will be to work. They couldn’t be more wrong. As Congress begins the annual appropriations process, it is crucial to point out the major flaws in this line of thinking, because legislators who buy into this narrative are less likely to allocate sufficient funds to human needs programs. This is not what people in the United States need, especially those living at the margins. In order to combat poverty in the U.S., it is necessary, as Pope Francis says, to “always consider the person” recognizing the dignity of the human person as our first priority. The narrative that economic insecurity motivates people to have a better work ethic is a dangerous myth and an attack on the human dignity of families and individuals who have been pushed into poverty.

All human beings want to flourish and, according to the Catholic Social Teaching principle of human dignity, we all deserve to flourish. Because we are made in the image and likeness of God, there is dignity inherent in all human beings so concrete that nothing – behavior, birthplace, income, race, or sex – can deny it. Being human is the only prerequisite for having dignity, and it is instructive for how we are to treat one another on this Earth. A person made in the image of God is worthy of having enough to eat, having meaningful work, expressing him or herself through art and creativity, and having access to what is necessary to live out his or her potential. We are called to flourish by God and any act or system that prohibits this flourishing must be challenged. The structure of society, therefore, must be founded in a firm respect for humanity that acknowledges and provides the resources that every human needs to live out his or her potential.

There’s a beautiful song that captures the intensity of the human desire and need to flourish called Bread and Roses. My favorite line is “our hearts starve as well as bodies,” because it illustrates that a well-fed body is not a comprehensive human experience. Our hearts must also be well-cared for in order to have a truly human life. In his ministry, Jesus Christ recognized earthly goods as the means to life, not the end of life. He said, “One does not live by bread alone…” We also live by roses like spirituality, love, beauty, and the appreciation of life. Don’t we all want not merely to have our personal needs satisfied, but to experience the wonder and amazement of life? The words of Rose Schneiderman from the women’s labor movement in 1912 that inspiredBread and Roses encapsulate this human desire. She said:

What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.

People struggling with poverty do not have the opportunity to live out their potential or have “roses” when humanitarian programs are not appropriately funded. According to psychological studies, slashing benefits does not provide any motivation to work harder. Instead, it actually generates more stress on the brain, which results in inadequate decision-making that can exasperate a situation of poverty. Thus, cutting poverty programs leads to the opposite of the spouted “less government aid equals harder work” argument. Furthermore, a permanent underclass, what Pope Francis calls a “throwaway culture,” is perpetuated by blaming people in poverty for an economic situation that they cannot create solutions for without the satisfaction of their basic needs. This treatment of our sisters and brothers is gravely unjust.

Therefore, I admonish those in Congress and society that blame people in situations of poverty. Jesus said, “I came that you might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10), and he recognized a design for living that embraces the human capacity to thrive. We must foster human thriving through a society that structures itself to make human dignity a priority, which includes adequate funding of human needs programs. Pope Francis recently spoke of the right humans have to rest, experience leisure, and flourish. The “occasion to live one’s own creatureliness” the pope speaks about is the joyful consequence of a human dignity-centered society. We as a nation must focus our energy on creating this society rather than blaming those who are poor for being poor.

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