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Religion and the Welfare State

Earlier this year, when Michigan governor John Engler acted to fulfill his campaign promise to reduce the size of government and proceeded to eliminate 80,000 able-bodied General Assistance recipients from the roll, his most vocal critics were welfare advocacy groups headed by prominent mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic religious leaders.

Likewise, in the states of New Jersey, California and Wisconsin, where welfare reform is underway, clergy of various traditions have vocally and vehemently denounced as immoral any attempt to “balance the budget on the backs of the poor.” The flames in Los Angeles were hardly quenched before the Rev. Jesse Jackson was on national television calling for “a plan” that would, of course, involve greater state expenditures for more inner city programs.

Two lines of reasoning emerge in this religious defense of the welfare state, both of which are seriously flawed.

The first assertion contends that the moral integrity of a society is determined by the use of a state’s taxing and transfer apparatus to tend to the needs of the economically marginalized.

The second contention is a utilitarian one and sees such governmental transfers as actually effective in ameliorating poverty and minimizing crime.

Yet, the underlying weakness of both these arguments indicates that a new paradigm is needed by the religious community in its legitimate concern to minister to the poor. Indeed, such a paradigm shift appears already in the making.

The problem with the first argument is that it presents a confused notion of morality. The moral status of those from whom Robin Hood stole could not be said to have been elevated by the fact that their money went to help the poor, assuming it really did end up helping them. For whatever noble end one may hope to achieve with the forced sharing of wealth, morality cannot be one of them. Forced morality is no morality because free choice is a necessary precondition for virtue. Additionally, “society” is an abstraction which cannot be said to be moral, except in relation to the actions of the individuals within it.

This confused vision of morality has resulted in the disintegration of charity into an entitlement and the collapse of justice into love. If all relations are based merely on justice, what becomes of love?

Perhaps the saddest thing in all this is that not only does such a system fail to achieve its moral goal; it also fails to achieve its practical goal: Just about everyone admits the massive welfare state doesn’t work - except perhaps a few ill tutored theologians.

Charles Murray, among others, has shown that welfare programs often end up being a remedy more deadly than the malady by creating the very situations they profess to cure. The simple reason for this was identified by the insightful economist Walter Williams, who said, “What you subsidize (poverty) you get more of; what you penalize (prosperity), you get less of.” Nor has the welfare state reduced crime, because crime is not primarily rooted in economic causes. It is rooted in moral causes.

In fact, there are several frequently overlooked moral and practical disadvantages to an expansive welfare state.

• Promoting the government as the resource of first resort lessens the incentive of people to become personally involved in needed projects, thus lessening their contact with and sensitivity to the poor.

• The state rarely, if ever, discerns the deepest humans needs which often underlie the cause of economic poverty, nor could it address them if it could discern them.

• The burgeoning welfare state hinders the church from fulfilling an essential part of its mission as servant to the world, relegating the church to the role of lobbyist.

• To the extent that the church functions as a lobbyist, rather than clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and performing the other traditional acts of charity itself, the church looses a rich source of its own spiritual nourishment.

• By secularizing social assistance systems (schools, hospitals, orphanages, health clinics, etc.), the moral influence of religious mediating institutions, critical in helping stabilize troubled families, is muted.

• The ever-widening tax base required to finance the welfare state expands the political sphere and further marginalizes the poor by creating disincentives for them to become full participants in the productive (i.e., private) economy.

• This tax burden also restrains the productive sector and discourages economic progress, which is an essential precondition for the amelioration of poverty.

• This enlarged political sphere also seeks to finance itself by the political manipulation of the currency resulting in inflation which negatively impacts everyone, but most especially the poor and those on fixed incomes.

Yet, there is a slowly dawning awareness of both the moral and practical inferiority of the welfare state within religious circles.

Even the pope has expressed deep reservations about the welfare or “social assistance” state. In his latest social encyclical, promulgated last May, John Paul II made an astounding observation that has left American religious defenders of the welfare state bewildered. The pope said,

“Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.

By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need. It should be added that certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simple material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need.“

These “deeper human needs” can only be addressed in the concrete, as the work of Sister Connie Driscoll illustrates.

A Missionary Sister of the Poor, Sr. Connie operates two shelters for women and children in one of Chicago’s roughest neighborhoods. Over the past eight years more than 6,000 women have passed through the doors of her St. Martin de Porres shelter, with only 6.5 percent of them returning to the shelter system once Sr. Connie gets through with them. (The overall recidivism rate in Chicago is 38.9 per cent.) And she does this without accepting federal or state support.

“I think the entire public welfare system has to be revamped,” Sr. Connie told Reason magazine. “I think the public welfare system does everyone a disservice - the people who are paying for it and the people who are using it - because it really does lock people into poverty.”

Her success has been begrudgingly acknowledged by the social justice establishment, and her shelter is listed as one of the eight model programs in the country in The Checklist for Success: Programs to Help the Hungry and Homeless.

Likewise, each year in Michigan over $300,000 is raised in one morning by the Grand Rapids Area Center for Ecumenism. Their annual Hunger Walk sees thousands of volunteers from a wide array of religious groups combine their efforts to raise money which goes directly to ameliorate poverty with virtually nothing taken out for bureaucratic overhead.

Hospitals, the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and a plethora of other effective charitable institutions first emerged from religious inspiration and have been a traditional feature of religious bodies for centuries. The kind of sentiments that produce these types of activities necessitate personal involvement on the part of faith communities and enable them to accomplish what the welfare state is simply incapable of accomplishing.

The time has come for religious leaders to abandon their advocacy of more and more government programs and resume their rightful position as the primary ministers of the welfare of the poor.