In a few months there will once again be the usual chatter regarding the debt ceiling, fiscal cliffs, and heightened rhetoric as interest groups vie for Federal money. The debates often center around the dollars with little to no regard for the actual problems those dollars are supposed to solve.

Consider “food stamps” which now come in the form of a debit card. If one has a debate about whether or not the hungry should be fed, virtually all of us agree that they should. We may disagree on who is actually in need and how they should best receive aid, but we agree that they should be fed. Advocates for increasing federal spending on food aid will argue that the economy has caused many more people to be without jobs and that these people need help. If a policy maker even so much as mentions cutting a dime from such programs he will be immediately vilified by many as “uncompassionate” at best, or “evil” at worst.

My own experience argues for a cautious approach, and why we need to be able to have discussions that go beyond mere rhetoric.

At a previous job, our rear parking lot was near some woods that were often filled with homeless people. They frequently came to us for water and my colleagues and I spoke with many of them on a semi-regular basis. Some of them were genuinely needy, while others stated that they liked being homeless because they were free from responsibility. Many of them had cell phones; all were well-clothed.

Over time I noticed a significant number of them asking for one of my employees. When they asked for him, they did so usually with an appearance of deep concern and seemed to want to see him immediately. I soon discovered the sad reason for their urgency. My employee would take their food stamp debit cards and exchange them at something like a 50% rate for booze. In other words for a $200 card my employee would buy roughly $100 in alcohol for the homeless and then use the card to purchase groceries for himself or others. This system was very efficient and profitable for all parties involved. The homeless were able to continue their habit using government funds and my employee was able to make a 50% return on investment for his trouble.

You may think this kind of thing is rare or hard to do. It is not. This “ring” of fraud is operated largely in the open and there was very little that could be done to stop it. If I were a legislator and suggested there is waste and fraud in the food stamp program, I would be labeled as uncaring.

For the record, I believe strongly in giving to charity and regularly give a portion of my income away. But I also believe in responsibility and stewardship. God has called us to love our neighbors and give to the needy while at the same time wisely managing what he has given us.

It is a wonderful thing that Americans care for the poor, and Christians have a special duty to help them. However, we should not allow that care to cause us to be blind to systematic abuses that actually hurt those the system is intended to help. Love demands that we provide for those around us, but wisdom demands that we not give to those who wantonly throw away what we are entrusting to them. Good stewardship requires honesty and honesty requires us to admit that good intentions are not enough.