What a difference a century makes.
Betty Smith's marvelous 1943 novel "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" opens in the early 1900s and details the struggles of an impoverished but determined New York family.
Destitute and frightened after the father's death, mother and children alike pitch in to make ends meet and to get the youngsters educated. And despite a level of want that the generally well-fed, air-conditioned, car-driving, cable television-equipped poor in modern America could scarcely imagine, the family survives and ultimately thrives.
One of the most remarkable facets of the book, given its themes of intense poverty, is the family's rejection of unearned assistance. Even when it comes to feeding her family, the mother cannot abide the thought of outside help.
"I don't want to live to get charity food to give me enough strength to go back to get more charity food," she says. And it presumably would have been inconceivable to her that taxpayers had a legal obligation to furnish her with welfare benefits.
That gritty attitude wasn't just the stuff of novels. It was generally understood for much of this country's history that families had a duty to work and support themselves and that aid was reserved for those who genuinely could not help themselves. America owes much of its success as the greatest nation in history to that approach. Yet it is a view that is disappearing in rapid order today. There is an all-too-common eagerness to let somebody else pay for one's keep if the alternative is a regular work schedule that might cramp one's style.
Tragically, government encourages that mindset.
Current legislation in Congress that deals with food stamps is as remarkable for what it does not contain as for what it does. The Senate rejected a plan by U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., that would have stopped giving bonuses to states that get more people to sign up for food stamps. You read that correctly: Washington perversely rewards states for increasing dependence on government.
Sessions should know: One in five residents of his state now gets food stamps, and Sessions no doubt realizes that the longer so many people remain on assistance, the harder it will be for them to break free.
President Barack Obama seems to have little problem with that. And why would we expect him to? Consider something Obama said, as quoted in a Chicago Sun-Times column in 1992, years before he became president: "All our people must know that politics and voting affects their lives directly. If we're registering people in public housing, for an example, we talk about aid cuts and who's responsible."
The push to expand the food stamp rolls or to expand government aid in general is not mere partisan mischief, though. The administration of George W. Bush also ran a recruitment campaign to boost food stamp usage, CNN reported.
Efforts to expand government reliance are a kick in the shins to the notion that people have a responsibility to support themselves -- and to seek outside assistance only when even their most diligent efforts make it impossible to get by.
Flouting that worthy principle makes us a weaker nation.