Having LDS students on Medicaid is antithetical to the church’s commitment to individual “self-reliance.” Latter-day Saints consider the ability to provide for oneself and one’s family an “essential commandment in the plan of salvation.” Yet church leaders have not historically opposed all forms of publicly funded social welfare, only those that are visible, stigmatized forms of government aid directed at the poor. That means that while church leaders have typically maligned Medicaid, they have wholeheartedly embraced programs geared toward the middle class. This contradiction suggests that their commitment to self-reliance depends on the program’s beneficiary.
When the church began in 1830, the Latter-day Saints set up a cohesive, economically self-sufficient community. However, due to internal disagreements and external pressure, their communitarian arrangement fell apart by the turn of the 20th century. In place of this radical experiment, church leaders established a more traditional system of religious charity. Local bishops used church members’ tithes and offerings to support needy members under their care.
However, the stock market crash in 1929 exposed the inadequacy of the church’s welfare system. Local LDS communities established farming projects and pooled resources to temper some of the Depression’s worst effects, but it was not nearly enough. Of the 17.9 percent of Latter-day Saints receiving some form of relief in 1935, 16.3 percent were receiving relief from public sources, while only 1.6 percent were receiving church funds, according to researchers.
In 1936, a year after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law, church President Heber J. Grant announced a revelation: The Lord told him to establish the church’s own “Security Plan.” Brought to their knees by the Depression but insistent that Roosevelt’s New Deal thwarted “independence, industry, thrift and self-respect,” church leaders appointed a Welfare Committee that built a network of internal infrastructure to help destitute members weather the storms of lingering economic uncertainty. Presenting this new plan to church members, Grant asserted: “The aim of the church is to help the people to help themselves. Work is to be re-enthroned as the ruling principle of the lives of our church membership.” By convincing members that their internal Welfare Plan was divinely inspired because it relied on scriptural ideas of “work” and “self-sufficiency,” while the government “dole” was immoral because it promoted “dependence” and “idleness,” Grant put theological heft behind his denigration of public welfare.
Grant’s contempt for the New Deal was not limited to direct relief payments. While he conceded that needy church members could work for the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration until the Welfare Plan could employ them all, he still denigrated church members in these work programs. He surveyed WPA projects and reported being aghast at workers’ inefficiency and laziness. Eighty years old in 1936, Grant contended that he could still work just as hard as the men in the WPA.
But Grant’s scorn earned a rebuke in an open letter from a Mormon WPA worker who complained that the church president acted as though the acronym stood for “WORTHLESS POOR ANIMALS.” Moreover, Grant’s insistence that the church should not give impoverished members cash because they could not be trusted to spend it wisely exhibited the paternalistic heart of the Welfare Plan. This distrust, the critic continued, reflected Grant’s belief that the Welfare Plan catered to “a class of beings — biologically on a plane of intelligence lower than ordinary humans.” Grant’s attitude suggested that there was more to the Welfare Plan than a desire to “re-enthrone work as the ruling principle” among Latter-day Saints. As the critic posed, what was the Works Progress Administration if not an agency dedicated to this very cause?
In addition to Grant’s condescending inconsistencies, there was deep irony behind his unsympathetic attitude (and that of his successors): The federal government supported church members countless times throughout the 20th century. Expenditures from tithes, the church’s primary source of income, fell from $4 million in 1927 to $2.4 million in 1933, according to a church history. Due to this sharp decline, federal expenditures in Utah from 1936-1940 were 10 times as much as the “accountable value” of the church’s Welfare Plan, according to a historical study. Grant therefore denigrated the very programs that sustained his church members for years.
Additionally, unprecedented government spending before and after World War II vaulted many Latter-day Saints into the middle class. Upon returning from the war, thousands of Mormon men went to college on the G.I. Bill and took jobs in defense industry sectors. The federal government pumped millions of dollars into Utah as a result of these new industries, and military installations employed approximately 40,000 civilians on the eve of World War II. In addition to encouraging students to “obtain all the privileges” of the G.I. Bill, BYU also tailored its 1945 class schedule to prepare Mormon men to work in the Utah’s new defense industry jobs. Church leaders’ insistence that members take care of themselves “without help from the government of the United States” did not extend to all forms of government largesse.
This distinction is critical. People still overwhelmingly assume that Latter-day Saints tend to oppose initiatives to expand the nation’s safety net because they are committed to this theologically based idea of self-sufficiency. Mormon Sen. Mitt Romney’s claim that Medicare recipients do not “take personal responsibility and care for their lives” has only perpetuated this myth in the popular imagination. Additionally, the church’s current welfare manual still stresses “self-reliance” and instructs needy members to turn first to family members and then to the church’s Welfare Plan if they fail to uphold this principle.
Yet church leaders’ commitment to self-sufficiency has not manifested in vocal concerns over federal tax breaks for corporations or homeowners’ mortgage-interest deductions. Just like the G.I. Bill, the lack of similar concerns directed at these government initiatives suggests that church leaders’ commitment to self-sufficiency is largely relegated to visible forms of government relief that help the country’s most economically vulnerable citizens.
That includes Medicaid and its Mormon recipients. Though it is not entirely clear why BYU-Idaho removed Medicaid temporarily from its list of “acceptable” health insurance options before relenting, the church’s selective history of maligning certain government-funded programs — while enjoying the spoils of others — offers clues.