Strife over the budget in Washington continues, with religious leaders and organizations weighing in on both sides. The positions of Christian participants in this battle are as intractable as the secular combatants and for the same reason: A fundamental difference of outlook concerning the role of government and the effect of government programs.
This clash has been reflected in recent debates among Christian leaders and organizations. A group of Catholic professors charged that John Boehner (and by implication every Catholic who agrees with his budgetary priorities) dissents from Church doctrine by favoring cuts to welfare programs. Fr. Robert Sirico , George Weigel , and others responded by challenging the view that Democratic domestic policy aligns neatly with the Catholic social teaching. Boehner’s Catholic critics were among those who issued an ecumenical statement calling for a “Circle of Protection ” around “programs that meet the essential needs of hungry and poor people at home and abroad.”
Advocates of sustained or increased government poverty programs insist that such programs genuinely do help the poor. The Circle of Protection signatories insist, “Funding focused on reducing poverty should not be cut. It should be made as effective as possible, but not cut.” To its credit, this statement implicitly recognizes that there may be inefficiencies and abuses in such programs. Yet, the idea that decreased spending could actually be a path to making poverty programs more effective does not, apparently, enter the realm of possibility.
In the midst of the Boehner controversy, a writer at the Catholic blog Vox Nova asked , “Can anybody possibly argue that the Boehner budget protects the poor?” The writer avows that the pairing of tax cuts for higher income earners with spending cuts to “programs that help the poor and people of limited means” is incontrovertibly inimical to Catholic social teaching.
Therein lies the crux of the matter. Defenders of government welfare programs not only cannot conceive of the possibility that government programs actually harm rather than help the people they target; they cannot conceive of the possibility that anyone else could conceive of the possibility. Those of us who sincerely believe that such programs are harmful are baffled at what we perceive to be stubborn resistance to the facts of the matter: Spending for programs related to the War on Poverty has increased 13-fold since Lyndon Johnson inaugurated them, without appreciable positive effect. Pope Benedict wrote in Deus Caritas Est (2005) that we need “a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need.” It is hard to see how Medicaid and the food stamp program fit this model.
Opponents of Republican budget proposals fail to recognize the tension within their own view. The Vox Nova blogger recognizes that the deficit crisis was caused in part by a “collapse in revenue.” The Circle of Protection statement deserves praise, too, for its insistence that “A fundamental task is to create jobs and spur economic growth. Decent jobs at decent wages are the best path out of poverty, and restoring growth is a powerful way to reduce deficits.” Unfortunately, the statement signers do not see that the vibrant economy they rightly desire as an antidote to poverty might be stifled by other pieces of the program they advocate.
What unemployed and impoverished people really need is not government handouts, but access to, and the capacity and inducement to engage, the market economy—as Pope John Paul II put it, to “enter the circle of exchange.” Government policy should be encouraging companies to hire and potential employees to be hired. Yet, to take but one example of recent counter productivity, economists have shown  that extending unemployment benefits beyond a certain length of time correlates with higher unemployment rates. If a safety net becomes too comfortable, people are inclined to remain in it. Welfare program advocates deny this vehemently—everyone wants to work, they say; they just need the chance—but statistical evidence and a realistic understanding of human nature contradict them. It could be that the perfect job is not available; maybe finding work means picking up and moving, or taking a cut in pay, or training to acquire a new skill. People faced with these situations deserve our compassion and assistance. But if we minimize the incentive to do what is necessary to find employment, we do neither the out-of-work individual nor the overall economy any favors.
On point number seven of the Circle of Protection statement, we can all agree: “As believers, we turn to God with prayer and fasting, to ask for guidance as our nation makes decisions about our priorities as a people.” Budget decisions are indeed moral acts. Whether morality points us toward expansion of poverty reduction programs or toward thorough revision—even reduction—of them, is another question. It is a good thing that Christians are engaged in this debate, for its outcome will have far-reaching repercussions for the poor, and for all of us.