Mormons and Government Benefits — Bloggernacle discussion

October 1, 2004 | 20 comments
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The relatively new LDS blog Nine Moons continues to roll, as Amy discusses the ethical and spiritual issues with Mormons who accept the financial benefits of government “loopholes.” She suggests that this behavior may be particularly common among church members. (I won’t way that she’s wrong). It’s a very interesting question: Is it honest to strain to take advantage of legal loopholes that allow one to save taxes or receive benefits, even if such practices are legally acceptable?

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20 Responses to Mormons and Government Benefits — Bloggernacle discussion

  1. a random John on October 1, 2004 at 3:05 pm

    If anybody wants welfare loophole tips, move to Colorado City and learn from the masters!

  2. danithew on October 1, 2004 at 3:33 pm

    Kaimi, I’ve noticed that over at Nine Moons the bloggernacker lawyers haven’t weighed in on the legalities of sneaking food into a theater — is it illegal? Under the law, how would sneaking food into the theater compare to finishing one movie and then going into another movie (without paying for two tickets?). If some lawyers could share some opinions or thoughts on the matter, even anonymously, it would be of interest on that post. Sorry for the threadjack.

  3. greenfrog on October 1, 2004 at 5:34 pm

    I haven’t looked at the fine print on the back of a movie ticket. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure there is any. If there isn’t, it seems like a relatively simple breach of contract to bring your own goodies in violation of the term of entry, though I suppose an enterprising type might try to craft a trespass tort claim. I’d guess the same thinking might apply to sneaking into a second flick, too.

    I’ll look for fine print tonight.

  4. Austin Frost on October 1, 2004 at 7:14 pm

    Of course it is honest.

  5. Jonathan Green on October 1, 2004 at 11:52 pm

    Kaimi, you’re being far too generous to Amy’s post. For those with strong stomachs, click on the link and watch Amy look down her nose at the members of her ward who avoid debt while starting families before they finish grad school by…horrors!…living in government-subsidized housing. Watching her contrast her own virtue to the “abuse” of others who live there and use WIC and Medicaid makes me angry. Key quote, removed from context to increase the shock value: “They probably look at us, paying our rent (and food and health insurance, but I won’t go into the food stamps and WIC programs they are also on)….”

    Amy is talking about a “Little Utah” apartment complex in a Midwest university town, in this case in Iowa, but we had our own in Urbana. We never lived there, but it never crossed my mind to feel morally superior to those that did. It’s late, I’m tired and angry, so I’ll stop now before I bear my testimony of Medicaid, WIC, and the Earned Income Credit.

  6. Bryce I on October 2, 2004 at 12:32 am

    Jonathan, you should post over at Nine Moons.

    As I recall, the Church in recent years has made an official statement saying that is acceptable for members to receive government assistance when circumstances warrant and when it is available. The wording was fairly weak — not encouraging members to do so, but making clear that they were not under church instruction not to do so. Does anyone remember this?

  7. Brian Duffin on October 2, 2004 at 1:59 am

    If the assistance is offered by the government, then I do not see where there is cause for concern (on a spiritual level, anyhow).

    From a selfish, liberal standpoint, I am inclinded to agree with the pagans: “And if thou hurt none, do what thou wilt.”

  8. Jonathan Green on October 2, 2004 at 10:29 am

    Sorry, Bryce. I think I’ll sit out the discussion over there. After sleeping on it, the original post irritates me more than ever, and I don’t think I’ll return to the site again. A few commenters have tried to address the issue already, and I don’t think my contribution of heat to the smoke would add up to light, or something like that.

  9. Rusty on October 2, 2004 at 11:52 am

    Johnathan,
    I understand your sentiment on the subject and I tend to lean more to your side of the discussion. I lament, however, that you say you won’t return to the site again. I hope you reconsider.

    It’s funny, I’m Amy’s brother and I know her pretty well and I can’t think of anyone in the world who feels morally superior LESS often than her. I think the general thrust of the post is not how she feels morally superior to others, but wondering whether or not it’s ethical to take advantage of government breaks. I’ve talked with her about this and she truly wonders the answer. I lament you’ve made a judgement about her with limited information. I think if you knew the life she lived, you’d think otherwise.

  10. Jonathan Green on October 2, 2004 at 6:08 pm

    But Rusty, if I got to know Amy, then I wouldn’t feel right about using over-the-top phrases like “look down one’s nose” and “moral superiority,” and every so often the more exotic flourishes of rhetoric demand to be exercised. I’ll stipulate that Amy is a wonderful person, but the post still grates on me.

    I don’t care at all for the way she contrasts paying her own rent, and health care, and grocery bill, with people living in “Little Utah.” I don’t like that the only government programs whose abuse she mentions are all about helping the poor. And I’m not at all fooled by the just-wondering-if-this-is-OK bit. The topic of the post (“abuse of governmental programs by Church members”) makes clear enough what she’s getting at.

    Did you notice the parallel sentence structures in that last paragraph? Rhetorical flourishes again. It’s how I write when I get upset. “Self-reliance” (not to be confursed with self-reliance) is one of those topics that winds me up. We all rely on lots of people and institutions to get by, no matter our income level, and it drives me crazy when people want the poor to be ashamed of their government programs, while those who are better off are raking in benefits hand over fist. Amy didn’t say anything like that, but her post serves the propogation of the “self-reliance” myth.

    Questioning the ethics of someone else’s government program is not, in any case, a nice game to play. Amy should spend a few hours calling around to find a pediatrician who accepts Medicaid, or talking to a case worker who treats you like you’re an idiot while you’re working on a master’s degree, or buying milk and cheese with WIC coupons while the cashier is trying to figure out what to do with them and the people in line are getting impatient–she should try all that, and then reconsider whether the inhabitants of “Little Utah” are really only doing it to game the system.

    See, there I go getting all worked up again. I like the structure of that last sentence, but it’s totally unfair to Amy. Think of it as stylistic evidence that Amy’s post is going to upset some people, all the more so if they’re actually living in “Little Utah.” By now, some members of her ward or stake will have read what she wrote. She may want to consider writing a well-crafted apology before next Sunday.

  11. Renee on October 2, 2004 at 7:05 pm

    1) Regarding “Is it honest to strain to take advantage of legal loopholes…”, the question for a latter-day saint is, is it ethical? There are plenty of things that are legal to do which we are discouraged from doing. Exactly how far must the church dissect the teachings of Christ and the commandments? I know plenty of people favor the secular law (or lack thereof) as their moral compass but that’s a strange road to take for a follower of any faith.

    2) Regarding welfare. We have our own “little Utah” in Omaha. Actually there’s 2. The one out west is the govt funded one. I haven’t read the thread at the other blog but I’ll weigh in anyway. There is nothing shameful about using the govt system to get back on your feet after unanticipated setbacks. It should be, however, a LAST RESORT. When our west O govt funded Little Utah is filled with families who moved here with the express INTENTION of going on the dole instead of taking out loans or getting assistance from their families while they are going to school, yeah, there should be a little shame going on. The former group (the poor) are using the aid because they lost a job or they are trying to overcome a poor choice in lifestyles or because of the flaws in the system that have made it a generational lifestyle. The latter group are students who were well aware that school costs money, babies cost money. While they could get loans or get the other spouse employed or stay in the same city as their family and live at home while attending school, they decided to take advantage of a govt program instead. It was a blatant choice. Thankfully not one that all the students here make. Many take out loans from the govt or family or join the military. Many hold of a few years on children (or more children) and take on various jobs.

    This is not a matter of looking down on the poor. Most of the poor probably wouldn’t make the pre-planned choice to be on welfare. It’s a matter of being disappointed in the willful choice – the actual plan to go on welfare. Indeed, to take advantage of a legal loophole. Welfare needs an overhaul for sure. If it had one, then able bodied people would get their schooling and start paying back all that money. In the meantime, it’s a shame that people take advantage of it. Just because it’s legal doesn’t make it ethical.

  12. Jonathan Green on October 3, 2004 at 12:17 am

    This discussion makes me want to start experimenting with a number of perfectly legal but unethical substances, starting around 6% and moving up to 40 proof.

    My understanding of LDS grad student family-dense, government subsidized apartment complexes is based on Winfield Village, near the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For a quick description, see http://www.news-gazette.com/apartment-guide/Winfield/
    It’s Section 236 housing, which according to random Internet information means, “Builders of multifamily housing get government subsidies to reduce the amount of money the builder has to pay as interest. In exchange for having lower costs to build the building, the builder agrees to charge lower rent.”

    In the case of Winfield, people moving in make a $2000-4000 “equity payment,” which is returned with interest upon moving out. Rents are determined on a scale partly depending on the family’s income, but were mostly in the $300-$550 range, if I recall correctly. Depending on your rent, and the apartment you were getting for it, that might be $100-$300 below market rates.

    In other words: This particular “Little Utah” was never intended to primarily house the destitute, but instead people with low and moderate incomes who can save enough money for the equity payment. The builder got a break from the government, and now has to pass it on to the tenants. This is not a “loopholeâ€? we’re talking about here; it’s a program designed exactly for the kind of people who are taking advantage of it. I don’t know the details of the “Little Utah” nearest you, but I rather strongly suspect that they’re broadly similar. If you dig into the details, you might find that your neighbors really don’t have motes in their eyes after all.

    Renee, your comments read like parody, but I’ll take them at face value. They are one of the most depressing things I’ve read lately, precisely because a lot of people would agree with you, I suspect. Yet nearly everything you suggest as a way to avoid the benign condition of living in subsidized housing runs directly counter to many things our current prophet has recently warned against, like
    Waiting to start a family;
    Pressuring wives to seek employment; and
    Debt.
    My family has largely avoided all of these, as well as sponging off my parents until my mid-30’s, thanks to a number of really wonderful government programs. There’s no virtue in piling on debt, or spending time away from your family in a second job, just so you can maintain the illusion of paying for everything yourself.

    Grad students are poor. They have low or no incomes and usually have spotty or no health benefits. That’s what poor means. Telling them they should feel ashamed is exactly equal to “looking down on the poor.� That you don’t distinguish between being on welfare, “on the dole,� and living in subsidized housing suggests to me that you don’t have a good understanding of the situation.

    The real problem, I think, is that graduate and professional education doesn’t fit perfectly with the typical ways members of the Church pair off and start families, and that the family ideal of the Church doesn’t fit perfectly with the typical expectations graduate schools have for their students. There can be problems with “Little Utahs,� but they have nothing to do with government subsidies, and members live in them for a lot of reasons, not all of them financial.

  13. CB on October 3, 2004 at 2:31 am

    I think this discussion is frustrating to some because we keep using terms like ethical and loophole which don’t have clear definitions. People understand those words in different ways. For instance, I home teach a couple that has rented a mobile home for 8 years. They think the tax deduction for mortgage interest is an unethical loophole used by the rich to exploit the working class. They would say the the deduction I get on my mortgage is a government giveaway program that I don’t need and therefore shouldn’t take.

    I understand that the point of this thread is to explore the gray area beyond what is strictly legal. But there are so many other factors that enter in to each individual situation, it is hard to judge. Here I am, in a house I bought with a Fannie May loan after going through school on Pell grants.
    I work for a company that was started with an SBA loan, and my salary goes into an account that is guaranteed by the FDIC. Raise your hand if any of those things apply to you.

    One more thing – I think the church position has shifted on this issue. A generation ago, it was common for a bishop to require that a member renounce all public assistance before receiving help from the fast offering fund. Now, bishops encourage needy members to explore possible sources of public assistance before seeking help from the church.

  14. Ivan Wolfe on October 3, 2004 at 8:50 am

    I understand now, that according to Renee, I am evil.

    I am a student and I have used governement funding to cover health care for my kids and have children.

    My wife does not want to work outside the home, and she felt it was very important to have her children early rather than later (when the chances of birth defects increase). We felt that the counsel to have families and have the mother stay at home if at all possible (as well as to avoid debt) trumped any counsel to avoid government welfare.

    But, if you want to judge me, go ahead. I’m still going to use the government rather than go into debt. I already have enough debt from school loans and credit cards (to pay for textbooks) – I don’t need any more.

    I figure that once I have a job (after this PhD) I will pay enough taxes for long enough to make up for the few years I used government help.

  15. cje on October 4, 2004 at 12:49 pm

    I figure that once I have a job (after this PhD) I will pay enough taxes for long enough to make up for the few years I used government help.

    (not if W gets his way.)

    The problem with the above comment is that you are very subtlly undercutting the very programs you are using–because it adds a condition on the assistance—in my mind what you are saying is that _it’s okay for me to recieve government handouts because I will return the investment_the subtext is that those who cannot return the investment should not recieve the assistance.

    cje

  16. Ivan Wolfe on October 4, 2004 at 4:07 pm

    No – I feel those who can’t afford to pay it back are probably those who need it most.

    But perhaps I spoke to hastily. I was giving a reason I myself do no believe, but was aimed at appeasing those who claim I am being unethical for accepting the money.

    But, I realize there were poblems with it. Thanks for pointing them out – I will be more careful in the future. Just as long as you don’t claim I am being unethical or evil for taking the assistance that is being offered.

  17. cje on October 4, 2004 at 4:58 pm

    Ivan

    My idealist socialistic tendancies tell me that if you need the money/assistance then you should get the money/assistance–the ethics of the situation are what should you do when you no longer need the money? And what is the definition of “need”?

    I’m a firm believer that the government should ensure that all social needs of a society are taken care off-and that these programs should be funded by taxes and yes I believe that the rich should pay most of those taxes.

    I better watch out I’m about to slip off into Communistic United Order economic rhetoric.

    Suffice it to say I do not condemn you–now go and sin no more.

    cje

  18. Russell Arben Fox on October 6, 2004 at 6:29 pm

    I’d meant to comment on this thread a few days ago, but as often happens my thoughts grew too large for a simple comment. So here are some thoughts on my own blog. Enjoy.

  19. Ethesis (my computer is broken) on October 6, 2004 at 7:17 pm

    t seems like a relatively simple breach of contract to bring your own goodies in violation of the term of entry, yeah, but is the term really an illegal tying arrangement (this darn keyboard, wrong shape … but I’m promised the real computer back tonight)

    Etc..

  20. Ethesis (my computer is broken) on October 6, 2004 at 7:26 pm

    Hmm, I don’t think of them as loopholes.

    Not like the legislature doesn’t change the law all the time …

    I’m glad to see my tax money spent that way.