National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 30, 2003

Long-term strategy, short-term needs

Appeal to the market as a savior for the poor is an incomplete solution


For four months, since January, the march to war and through war has dominated national attention. Now the decline in the immediate danger of and from war brings attention back to the domestic policy debate. There, just below the radar of public attention, broad proposals are being pressed, pushed, debated and decided.

The dominant debate is about fiscal policy -- taxes and spending -- but there are subordinate themes within this matrix of specific concern to persons who care about both Catholic social teaching and Catholic social institutions dedicated to health care, education and social service.

The two broad questions are embodied in the “anti-poverty” CARE bill and the budget debate.

Both engage issues deeply central to the Catholic social tradition; both also bear upon the capacity of Catholic institutions to contribute to the social welfare of American society. There is a double call to the church in public debates like these for it sustains a social vision that should be articulated and advanced, and it supports social institutions whose work will be affected by the direction of public policy.

Religion and government

This is an old question with a new edge to it. The new edge is provided by the Bush administration’s intention to open new avenues of cooperation and funding for religiously based social services and programs.

The larger question of religion and government extends far beyond the president’s initiative in the CARE bill. The principles that form the bedrock of Catholic perspective and institutional posture on religion and government are as follows:

First, religion and government -- or church and state in the conventional terms -- should be understood as distinct and independent entities. Catholicism distinguishes them by their origin, their ultimate purpose and the means appropriate to each. Hence, the American notion that there should be institutional distance (“separation”) between them is sound.

Second, both institutions have obligations to the common good of the society in which they exist. Hence their separation is not total; they share a functional responsibility for the welfare of the citizens of society. There should be room for defined areas of common endeavor.

Third, the church has an expansive conception of its responsibilities to the common good. It includes the formation of a community with explicit views on citizenship as part of discipleship; it extends to the public advocacy of Catholic teaching on a broad array of public policies; and it supports, in complex fashion, a multiplicity of social institutions that serve the society as a whole. These institutions emerge from deep Catholic commitments that institutional presence is a necessity for effective social influence in complex societies.

Fourth, where church and state collaborate, there should be both explicit rules of engagement and also a sense of appropriate self-restraint on both sides. It is not out of order for the state to require specific standards of religion institutions; it is also not obstructionist for the church to demand a sphere of freedom and independence about how it will collaborate with the state.

Government and poverty

Poverty has multiple roots and many manifestations. The factors that are always relevant are nutrition, housing, health care, education and employment. Gaps in any of these areas threaten human dignity and leave human needs unaddressed.

The very young, the elderly, women and immigrants are the most vulnerable to these gaps in American society. The basic premise of Catholic teaching is that society as a whole is responsible for the common good, and, therefore, the major sectors of society have obligations in the face of people suffering from poverty.

The attractive quality of the original CARE bill as shaped by Sens. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., was that it could enhance the engagement of distinct sectors of society in providing needed social assistance to poor families.

Some of the tax provisions would facilitate charitable donations to social services agencies of different kinds; the government was pledging over a billion dollars in new money for programs to benefit the poor; the church-state language facilitated religious participations in social programs in a fashion that did not compromise constitutional order or religious identity.

The greatest asset of the legislation was its mix of these three elements. Catholic Charities USA has been a strong advocate of the bill; it has been a distressing experience to watch the elements unravel in the Senate debate.

Some Democrat senators sought to amend the church-state section in a fashion that would alter the current legal right of religious organizations that receive federal funding to consider religious affiliation when making employment decisions, thereby, in our view, endangering the long-term religious character of the organizations.

To avoid these amendments, the church-state language was dropped from the bill entirely; in response the White House immediately withdrew its support of the Social Service Block Grant money -- the very instrument that would foster the collaboration of religion and government in support of the poor.

What is left of the CARE bill (including the money) is still worth fighting for, but its future is much less promising than it once was.

Duties of the state

The responsibility of the state or the government to address the fact of poverty is not limited to what it can do through religious or other private organizations. The state has distinct, independent duties to the welfare of individuals in society. How those duties are fulfilled can and does vary greatly within different cultures and political systems. The range of social policies among the advanced industrial democracies of Europe, North American and Japan illustrates the diversity of approach. The duties have an absolute character; the methods of fulfillment are contingent.

Their contingency makes them a subject of debate; the publication of the Bush administration budget in February has catalyzed debate about the consequences of proposed policies upon the government’s responsibility for the most vulnerable members of American society.

A detailed analysis in The Washington Post opened with this statement: “President Bush has embarked on a far-reaching campaign to transform the federal government’s relationship with the nation’s poor, seeking to tip control over social services to the states, reduce the funding of some programs and require more proof that low-income people are eligible for public help.”

The three tactics cited all fall in the contingent means category, but their consequences could severely restrict the government’s role of support for poor families and children. This becomes evident when one gets beyond the general description offered by the Post and looks at specific programs. A principal indicator is changes proposed for the Medicaid program, which now supports the needs of 44 million people.

The Bush plan has several elements, but a central one is to move away from the federal-state funding formula where the government matches state spending on Medicaid on an open-ended basis. The present formula guarantees increasing federal funds for the increased cost of increased participation in the program, new technologies, new epidemics and inflation. The administration’s proposal is an invitation to states (not a requirement) to accept a “cap” on that open-ended guarantee, and the invitation is made attractive by an increased federal contribution in the short-term, followed by the prospect of reduced federal spending in the long-term. A related proposal is being made for a rental subsidy program (Section 8) for low-income families and senior citizens; the technique is a move to a block grant to states. The consequences, yet unclear, could involve time limits on housing assistance for poor families. The historic parallels for this kind of move are not encouraging. Every other anti-poverty block grant program has been frozen.

Obviously, these debates descend to a level of detail that must be empirically tested to determine the wisdom and justice of the policy. But embedded in the debate about details is a fundamental vision of how a society conceives of its duties to those individuals and families with clearly definable unmet socioeconomic needs.

In a society like the United States, the three main variables in meeting these needs are the market, the government and private organizations both religious and secular. The Bush administration has not been ambivalent about its faith in the market as the key to economic success; it is the underlying premise of the president’s policies on tax cuts. But this year’s budget proposals have specified this market-based confidence quite precisely on its approach to poverty. To resort again to the Post: “In his pursuit of dramatic changes in tax policy, President Bush is putting an unprecedented emphasis on private sector growth as the primary tool for lifting the downtrodden out of poverty, and, in effect, casting aside decades of efforts to close the gap between rich and poor.”

To be fair, the story that begins with this quote goes on to interview administration officials who would contend that the last clause of the statement is inaccurate. The Bush policy, instead, is aimed at improving the conditions of the poor through economic growth. The roots of this debate lie in the experience of both the 1980s and 1990s, involving a parsing of Reagan and Clinton economic policies.

Moral limits of the market

Here it is useful to recall the dictum of Pope John Paul II in Centesimus Annus (1991). In an encyclical that gave more credence to the role of the market as a principle of economic organization than any of his 20th-century predecessors have ever offered, the pope went on to highlight the moral limits of the market.

These included the fact that the market is relevant only to those with a minimum of resources to enter it, and the market seems incapable of distinguishing between different kinds of goals, some of which have purely instrumental value (cars) and others that carry morally significant values (health care). The moral limits of the market require that its indispensable function in an economy be supplemented by a broader social policy, the product of the political order, which is designed to address those issues and those individuals whose basic needs are not met by the dynamic of the market. This is one of the abiding roles of the state in its contribution to the common good.

That role cannot be devolved onto the third participant, the private organizations of a society. As noted above, they too have an indispensable role to play, but it does not substitute for either the state or the market. To return to the CARE bill, encouraging philanthropy to private groups is insufficient; the state needs to make its own fiscal and policy contribution. Arguments that rely ever more on a motivation of charity and on charitable institutions will create a morally superior society fail on two grounds. By focusing on charity, they miss the necessity of strategies based on obligations of justice. In Catholic teaching, for example, distributive justice is a controlling category for assessing tax policy. In addition, the role given to charitable groups in a society of this size will far outrun their capacities to deliver necessary assistance.

Finally, the appeal to the market as a savior of the poor confuses a fundamentally accurate assessment with a basically adequate policy. A growing economy providing jobs with living wages is the long-term solution to poverty. The 1990s showed this dynamic at work. But a long-term strategy does not meet short-term needs, and when those needs are named food, shelter and health care, one cannot justify a policy simply by its long-term objectives. A mix of the market and social policy engaging all relevant players in the society is the strategy indicated by the concept of the common good.

Catholic teaching and Catholic institutions both are at stake in the way this society addresses religion and government as well as government and poverty. The present state of the debate poses challenges for Catholic vision, its institutions and the Catholic community, which must sustain the viability of both.

Fr. J. Bryan Hehir is president of Catholic Charities USA and distinguished professor of Ethics and International Relations at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.

National Catholic Reporter, May 30, 2003

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