Acton Commentary

Faith, Families, and Welfare Reform


Yesterday, President George W. Bush opened a significant policy initiative on the domestic front–the announcement of his welfare reform agenda for the reauthorization of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). This legislation is, as welfare reform expert Ron Haskings notes, “the most fundamental change in American social policy since the New Deal of 1935.” While the successes of this policy are widely celebrated, even by its former foes, the President wisely issued a challenge to improve on the best successes of this policy, such as the work requirements, closer collaboration with faith-based services, and an emphasis on marriage and fatherhood.

In my estimation, the President's challenge to lawmakers to bolster closer collaboration with faith-based services and to promote marriage and fatherhood initiatives is promising. The desire to institute policies that are friendly to faith-based services and traditional family life is based on good instincts and solid facts. It is well known that traditional two-parent families have much lower rates of poverty than single-parent households. Past welfare disincentives that penalized marriage and responsible fatherhood are rightfully tackled in the President's proposed agenda.

One specific proposal to alter the current child support payment system is a very pragmatic and reasonable reform that could have profound effects in the lives of children. Current welfare law allows state governments to keep a portion of the father's child support payments to defray some of the expense associated with welfare. The Bush reform proposes to offer financial incentives to give more of the father's payments directly to his children instead of putting it in the welfare system. Such a reform makes an important point–fathering children brings with it the obligation of personal support for those children. This, surely, is a common sense reform that is long overdue. The purpose of child support payments is for the well being of the child, not the good of governmental welfare systems.

The other promising emphasis in the Bush Administration's plan is the desire to recognize and partner with the work of faith-based groups that provide social services. Faith-based groups often fill needs that no welfare system (no matter how good it might be) can fill. The President rightly noted in his speech that “in times of personal crisis, people do not need the rules of bureaucracy; they need the help of a neighbor.” The laudable goal of raising the profile of faith-based services offers a chance for the legitimate recognition of the role of religion in the public square. No doubt, those many millions that have been treated by faith-based services for drug addiction, alcohol abuse, homelessness, and sickness, are happy to see their “saving grace” recognized as the legitimate contributor to social service that they have always been.

With the many promising aspects of the Bush plan for welfare reform, I would sound two notes of caution to our nation's policy makers. In the past, the government, through the good intentions of the Great Society and the resulting massive welfare state, did great harm to marriage and responsible fatherhood. While I am pleased that our nation's policy makers have recognized the value of marriage and fatherhood, I am skeptical of government's ability to successfully promote and handle these issues. I do not think, however, that the government should be neutral on questions of marriage and family. It is simply not the best agency to handle or promote the issue. It seems that such a well-intentioned policy would have the unintended effect of encroaching on the family, the fundamental building block of civil society. As the specifics of such programs are unveiled and worked out in the political process, a careful eye to potential inappropriate government meddling will be necessary.

The second note of caution I would sound involves the ongoing debate surrounding faith-based services. The Bush Administration proposal to encourage charitable giving through tax credits and deductions to non-itemizers is one to be heralded. The caution I offer is for those faith-based groups that seek government funding for social services. Any time government funds are involved in funding religious charities, the charity is always at risk of having its most fundamental tenets compromised. Even with provisions currently in the law, there are many hurdles to overcome for religiously based charities. President Bush's desire to end discrimination against religious charities is an excellent witness to the power of faith-based services, but the effect of religious charities competing for government funds is, at best, a mixed bag for the religious side of a group's mission. Both the nation and religious charities would benefit from thinking more deeply about the relationship between the state and religious charities.

All in all, the Bush proposal offers a good start to the debate over TANF reauthorization. The explicit recognition of the dignity of the human person, the good of families, and the contribution of religious charities sets a promising tone. Further discussion will be necessary, however, as more specifics come to light. Good intentions do not always translate into good policy. Our government's desire to bolster faith and families is a very good intention, but it remains to be seen if it's the best policy.