Then something like Hurricane Katrina comes along. When entire towns are wiped off the map (whether by outside attack or natural disaster) and citizens have lost absolutely everything, what's the government's job? To protect its citizens. In this case by performing rescues, rebuilding elements of infrastructure needed on the national level, and arranging for the minimum basic necessities of life (food, water, shelter, and, arguably, security) for the thousands who have lost everything in a catastrophic event. With me so far?
Ok, so taking that as a given, where is the line drawn? What is the limit placed on compassion at varying levels of "catastrophe"? At what point do you stop caring about other people's misfortune and instead start forcibly evicting them to make way for the next mega-mall or high-priced subdivision of McMansions? Because what many out-spoken conservatives, and the ditto-heads who follow in their wake, don't seem to realize is that many or most of the people they're condemning as "too lazy to work" or "welfare queens" are actually thousands who have lost everything in a catastrophic event. Just not necessarily the same event, nor all at the exact same time. Debilitating injuries. Major sicknesses. Mental illness. Death of the family's breadwinner. House fires. The only major employer in town closing its plant and the standard of living in places where there might be jobs requiring the same skills being so high that selling one's house and worldly goods may not be enough to arrannge for transportation to that location and then to purchase and make monthly payments on a new home or to sustain a monthly rent for very long. (Quick math fact: $800 per month rent = $9,600 per year. (And in many areas of the country, particularly the urban areas where most of the jobs are, people wish they could find a rent that low.) Full time employment at the federal minimum wage = $10,042.50 pre-tax income per year. Even taking that number as net rather than gross leaves $36.88 per month for food, water, heat, clothing, car payments, school supplies for children, insurance, etc. Even for a household bringing in double the minimum wage--again, being generous and taking the number as net rather than gross--that only results in $873.75 per month to be divided up among all of the other costs of living.) The list goes on and on, with about as many variations as there are people in dire straits. What they've suffered is often no less catastrophic, and they are no less in need of a helping hand than someone whose home was blown down or flooded by a hurricane. And, as study after study has shown, poverty has cumulative effects over time, and over generations. Social services can be as or more important than simple payouts.
Sure, there are charitable organizations out there doing that sort of work, but the same is true for victims of natural disasters. This is why we fundamentally assume that FEMA and the National Guard will accept the Red Cross when it offers assistance. Not because FEMA can't or shouldn't do such work in the first place, but because every little bit helps, and we're all in this life together.
The real answer, as any truly compassionate person would know, is that there is no line. The basic job of government is to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens. (To go back to the original French slogan from which the Declaration of Independence paraphrased.) In time of war and in time of peace. After a major disaster directly affecting three states, and after a lesser disaster that affects only one household. There is no difference, from the point of view of the household. 100,000 homeless due to a hurricane vs. 100,000 homeless due to permanent debilitating injury, overwhelming medical bills, and being bankrupted by Enron/WorldCom/etc. schemes is still 100,000 homeless either way, and the federal response in both cases should be both direct and indirect assistance.
And speaking of protecting life, liberty, and property, a major part of the government's responsibility is basic stewardship over the nation, including the national economy. Because even for the most anarchic, hands-off government, if the national economy crumbles into ruin, the entire nation will follow soon after, and there won't be a nation, particularly after there is no military or police force due to lack of funds and material support. To temporarily focus on one related issue, the problem of unemployment and underemployment, particularly in comparison to the standard of living, is a national problem, as it both impacts the national economy and reflects deeper issues in the national economy. Thus, at least part of the solution to such problems must be on the national level, in the form of actions taken by a responsible steward; and the very nature of such actions should have the result of providing "assistance" through increased opportunities for gainful, meaningful employment that can actually lead to an increased quality of life rather than mere subsistence living. After all, if the poor and disadvantaged are considered to be a "drag" on the economy, wouldn't providing them with the needed opportunities to turn their lives around and get on the right track remove that drag and thereby improve the entire nation?
Yes, the fundamental issues are more complex, and one can never rule out the capability of unscrupulous criminals to take advantage of any system for their own benefit--on both sides of the equation. Also, providing assistance with daily needs, opportunities for advancement, and generally providing a "safety net," against such disasters are not the same thing as "giving a man a fish" rather than "teaching him how to fish." However, at a fundamental level, protecting individual lives and protecting individual liberties really does protect the nation, so it is in the nation's best interest to have a federal government that really does both of those things, and not just when the worst natural disaster of recent times hits or when it's politically expedient to do so, but all of the time. Yes, there's such a thing as individual responsibility, but there is an equal responsibility on the part of elected officials to the people whom they represent--a group which is not limited to the people who voted for them.
Feudalism: Serf & Turf