Welfare reform is a gargantuan task requiring policy expertise, legislative aptitude, and political sophistication. Yet more is needed. Our efforts must reflect a commitment to moral principles, or else they are destined to fail. Let's reflect on them.
The Gospel tells us that all people are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Society must adhere to this proposition by offering opportunities for the disadvantaged to use their God-given rights to enterprise and labor. They must be able to flourish in communities that are protected and preserved.
In the name of eradicating poverty, however, we have constructed a terrifying political machine called the welfare state. Despite noble intentions, and far-flung predictions of success, poverty and its attendant social ills still plague us. Indeed, they have worsened in the past three decades. In a society that was once an example of social mobility, we find intractable intergenerational poverty and suffering.
It is the moral obligation of political leaders to face up to the task of radical reform. We must take account of the fundamental flaws of the system.
Centralization Our national strategies for welfare have attempted to help those in need from the most distant level: the central government. Such an approach requires that the poor be aggregated into one homogeneous unit to be dealt with under a single plan. In reality, poor people are radically heterogeneous individuals-with different histories, situations, talents, resources, and weaknesses. Their real needs are too subtle to be discerned from such great distance.
Bureaucracy Every government plan requires people to administer it. The welfare state has required the creation of a complex web of employees, rules, and subsidies. This bureaucracy operates without effective financial checks and is perceived by the poor as threatening, inefficient, and imperceptive to their real needs. It has also drained human capital from productive employment to dead weight administration.
Moral Hazard The problem with materialistic solutions for poverty, and other forms of suffering, is that they subsidize the problems they are intended to alleviate. They encourage and expand conditions such as poverty, broken families, out-of-wedlock births, unemployment, and even sickness. The “consumers” of state services are given little opportunity to become independent. Instead, they so often succumb to the moral hazard of dependency, a condition which passes through the generations.
The new system—a more moral one—must feature the following elements:
Economic Freedom The most socially effective solution to poverty is a growing economy. Economic liberty, and the social forces associated with it, make a rise in the general standard of living more likely and personal and social deprivation less likely. The most important improvements in the material alleviation of poverty have come about through freedom of economic enterprise.
The Division of Labor The free economy allows every person who can work to play an important role in directing economic life toward a common good. Everyone participates in the social division of labor through cooperation in the productive process. The elites cannot gain control of the system for their own ends, while the non-elites are not left out.
Political Freedom Our tradition-both American and religious-supports a naturally ordered and free society. Solutions to poverty and other forms of suffering should also rest on this foundation. Rather than become permanent clients of the state, the poor should, when possible, become independent.
Decentralization Social failures will always exist in every community. According to the tradition of subsidiary (embodied in the American system of federalism), social failures should be addressed by those closest to the problem. That way the radical heterogeneity of society can be accounted for by people who care.
Authentic Charity To have compassion means to suffer with those in need and to lead them toward realizing their individual goals in the context of virtue. That requires individuals and institutions who have knowledge of the problem and the best interest of the poor at heart. America is among the most generous countries in the world. That generosity can form the basis of a new system of charitable provision.
Deeply entrenched political interests are warring against change. These interests include the bureaucrats who benefit from larger budgets and the politicians who use the good sentiments of the American people to buy votes. These interests can only be overcome through fundamental moral and cultural renewal.
All levels of American society, including the Congress itself, must participate. Through a moral renewal, resting on faith in God and the goodness of His creation, we can begin the process of discovering new and better ways to care for the least fortunate among us.