Acton Commentary

The Human Reality of Work and Community in Welfare Reform


Recently, President George W. Bush was in Little Rock, Arkansas, meeting with former welfare recipients to promote the marriage initiatives and work requirements his administration is pursuing in the coming reauthorization of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. With the success of welfare reform legislation known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Bush administration wishes to make two important changes to the law—stricter requirements for work and the strengthening of American families. The proposals mark a significant change in the strategy for fighting the ongoing “war on poverty.” The first proposal involves a greater emphasis on work, requiring able-bodied adults to make serious efforts to end their dependence on government funds and find work. The second proposal acknowledges the reality that strong marriages and families are the first line of defense against poverty. At the center of the Bush plan for decreasing the number of welfare recipients is the fundamental recognition of the human goods of work and community. As promising as these developments are, however, the Bush plan is not without its limitations.

In the creation of any social policy, one of the critical areas often absent from the debate is an understanding of the anthropology of the human person. The term human anthropology points to the ancient question, “Quid sit homo? What is man?” After all, was it not Adam Smith who studied collective human behavior first in moral philosophy and then later in economics? An investigation into the anthropological worldview taken by past and present policy makers offers some insight into how past legislation was devised and points to the limitations of social policies based on a limited or false anthropological worldview. If one is to devise a truly helpful and anthropologically sound social policy, then two important questions emerge at the center of the debate—what is the anthropological worldview taken and for whom is the policy designed?

The current proposed TANF provisions focus on the human reality of work and community. It does this by promoting a forty-hour workweek (with which most citizens are quite familiar) during which a person can receive job training and/or education as part of meeting the work requirement. Such a promotion of work should be seen as helping others to help themselves, thus reinforcing a central facet of the dignity of the human person. The other important aspect of the proposed provisions is the recognition that strong marriages and families are a fundamental factor in the alleviation of poverty. This recognition of the human dimension of social policy understands the important connection between work and community as central to improving the lives of those currently on the welfare rolls.

Christian social thought has much to add to this conversation of work and community. Christian teaching understands man as an image bearer of God. As those who bear God's image, man has the capacity to be a productive and creative individual, capable of moral acts. As Pope John Paul II has stated:

“In fact, there is no doubt that human work has an ethical value of its own, which clearly and directly remains linked to the fact that the one who carries it out is a person….”

The concept of understanding work and community as interrelated evokes the biblical mandate that compels mankind to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth, and to subdue it and rule over it (Gen. 1:27-28). Such a command is not to be seen as a mandate for exploitation, but rather as a mandate for stewardship of God's creation. By virtue of being made in the image of God, man shares in God's creative work not in a vacuum of individuality, but in a community of human persons.

In the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament, poverty was not defined exclusively as a lack of income, but also as exclusion from participating in the community. Work is an essential part of someone moving from the fringes of society into participation in the life of the community. The lack of necessary resources that a person who works may experience is not just individual “bad luck.” Rather, it is the responsibility of the community to appropriately assist those in legitimate need. The person's community should provide support and necessary assistance. In such a situation of legitimate need, many people tend to turn to the government for support. Sadly, the legitimate consideration of the moral and religious sphere is seemingly absent from many of these conversations. It is good to see policy makers conscious of the benefits of a strong work ethic and the importance of marriage and family life. It seems, however, that essential institutions of civil society, such as churches, have abdicated some of their responsibility to assist neighbors in need.

Communal responsibility for assisting those in need cannot be entirely deferred to governmental agencies. As President Bush remarked in a speech in Chicago three weeks ago, “Washington doesn't know everything, believe it or not.” The government's primary responsibility should be to promote the common good—that is, to maintain the rule of law and preserve the nation's security. To adequately protect the common good also means acknowledging certain limitations for government involvement in other spheres of life. The proposed TANF provisions are a thoughtful piece of legislation because they take into account, however imperfectly, the dignity of work and the necessity of healthy marriages and families. Their limitations, however, lie in their inability to implement these changes at the interpersonal level. It is only the local institutions of civil society, such as schools, churches, and community organizations, that are capable of effecting the change of heart and conversion of life envisioned in the President's plan.