As our readers know, I frequently write concerning the real meaning of subsidiarity and emphatically in support of Bishop Blaire’s statements for protecting poverty programs, especially SNAP. The most common response I receive or hear from those who support the approach of Paul Ryan is that John Paul II cautioned strongly against the social assistance state, the implication being that we are the social assistance statetherefore, this isn’t fundamentally a debate about Catholic social teaching’s primary principles but a matter of prudential judgment (which appears to be reduced almost to a mere personal preference). In 2012, we are far removed from the Centesimus Annus context of Cold War, the fall of the USSR, and Poland. At the same time, American public discourse is notorious for ignoring, caricaturing or misunderstanding the reality of Europe and its social protections. All of this leads to the common assumption that we are the social assistance state. In conversations with commenters and others, the most common response I receive is “well if we are not the social assistance state then who is?” So – I’d like to ask, “will the real social assistance state please stand up?”

What is the social assistance state? According to Centesimus Annus 48,

In recent years the range of such [state] intervention has vastly expanded, to the point of creating a new type of State, the so-called “Welfare State”. This has happened in some countries in order to respond better to many needs and demands, by remedying forms of poverty and deprivation unworthy of the human person. However, excesses and abuses, especially in recent years, have provoked very harsh criticisms of the Welfare State, dubbed the “Social Assistance State”. 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 neighbours to those in need. It should be added that certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need. One thinks of the condition of refugees, immigrants, the elderly, the sick, and all those in circumstances which call for assistance, such as drug abusers: all these people can be helped effectively only by those who offer them genuine fraternal support, in addition to the necessary care.

Now, let’s parse out a bit this long segment from John Paul II’s encyclical.  John Paul II acknowledges and throughout other sections of CA explains the positive role of government.  The encyclical also places national government in relationship to local and intermediary levels of government. However, John Paul II is also trying to point to necessary limits to the strength and power of government in relation to the full dignity of the human person and the common good.  Let me be as clear as possible – the primary concern for John Paul II is the dignity of the human person and the fullness of the common good. The fullness of the common good involves the full flourishing of civil society, which is broader than the more limited public order (which according to Vatican II and John Courtney Murray is the function of government…but this will be the subject of future post).  This concern is different from the primary concern among many GOP discussions – which is either purely economic or a mix of economic with individual liberty sprinkled on top. The measure of the social assistance state for Catholic social teaching is not merely a matter of labor participation (the question of at what level taxation and social assistance becomes a genuine disincentive to work) but about the flourishing of civil society.  John Paul II is concerned with government intervention paralleling communism where the government takes over the functions of all other levels of society and eroding any personal sense of responsibility for our neighbor.

Now let’s look at the United States of America – are we the social assistance state? On the economic front, there is no empirical evidence that we have either a taxation level or social assistance which provides a genuine disincentive to work. While many raise questions concerning the strict regulations for assistance (cash welfare, Medicaid, etc) the debate about disincentives are not about creating a disincentive to desire working –but that the jobs one can receive cannot support oneself and one’s children. It is not reasonable to consider something a disincentive to work when the labor options available do not or cannot achieve a basic standard of living.  In such situations, the problem is not that social welfare programs are TOO generous so as to make work unappealing but that part time and minimum wage jobs do not raise someone above the poverty level and our structures do not allow people to maintain needed benefits while working.   (In large part because our poverty level is set far below what is required for basic standard of living as necessary for  within Catholic social teaching). Moreover, the recipients of most social assistance are the working poor and children.

Take a look at the following chart from the DEMOS foundation:



Another key resource for poverty data is the USCCB’s updated POVERTY USA website.  As Leo XIII stated in Rerum Novarum,

“Nothing is more useful than to look upon the world as it really is, and at the same time to seek elsewhere, as We have said, for the solace to its troubles.”

Statements about policy and CST must begin with the world as it is – and not the assumption that we must be the “welfare state” in CA.

To be as blunt as possible – we simply don’t have that generous of a social protection safety net.  In addition, since 1996’s welfare reform the actual assistance available to children living in poverty has SHRUNK. In 1996, for every 100 poor families with children, 68 received cash assistance – as the graph above notes, today that is only 27. According to data at the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities four part series on Hardship in America (November 2011), TANF benefits have fallen by 20% in 34 states since 1996 when adjusted for inflation.

 The majority of states now provide TANF benefits that are below 30 percent of the poverty line . . . TANF benefits thus are increasingly inadequate to help poor families meet basic needs, like housing. In every state, the monthly TANF benefit level for a family of three is less than the estimated cost of a modest two bedroom apartment.

To claim that the United States of America is remotely approaching the social assistance state cautioned in CA simply distorts the reality of the American safety net – it just isn’t that strong, generous or comprehensive.   Just ask anyone who’s ever been on public assistance or lived at or near the poverty line. To quote economist Charles Clark (who also happens to my father and has written on the need for evidence-based economics in Commonweal), prudential judgment in CST requires evidence based reasoning and the evidence is clear: if you want to reduce poverty we need to enhance not erode or reduce social protection.

The other primary concern is about other levels of community. This is the concern raised in a recent blog by Matthew Shadle at Political Theology’s blog. I share Dr. Shadle’s concerns about building up community – scholars like Charles Taylor, Robert Wuthnow, and Robert Putnam have been focusing on this for some time. However, I do not interpret the discussion concerning social welfare programs, the federal budget, and political debate in the same way as Shadle.  Government programs to allocate resources are not the result of or example of a poverty of communities as much as a necessary symptom of a society driven by financial capitalism and characterized by growing inequality.

Catholic social teaching is concerned with the full flourishing of civil society –thus, the family, local communities, etc. However, all of these communities need the infrastructure and social space to carry out their function. This is the heart of what I have said previously about subsidiarity – the necessary fluid relationship between the government and other aspects of civil society. This is what John Paul II clearly states in CA.  David Beckmann, President at Bread for the World has made this argument repeatedly.  Bread for the World, soup kitchens, and other community groups around the country are communities providing needed and compassionate care for their neighbors. But they CANNOT do this without government resources and by the numbers 96% of feeding hungry people is accomplished by SNAP, School Lunches, and WIC. These programs do not erode levels of community they allow for them.  I just came home from a local farmers market in Babylon Village, NY –and all around the farmers market were signs for how to use SNAP food program cards to buy fresh local produce. This allows for community, it does not threaten it.  (In addition to being effective, evidence based economic and poverty reduction policy.)

The questions of the social assistance state are complicated and it is difficult to envision the PERFECT equilibrium. But, according to OECD Better Life index

On average, people across selected OECD countries, spend 4 minutes per day in volunteer activities. People in New-Zealand, Ireland and the United States spend more than twice that time volunteering. In several countries, however, people spend hardly any time volunteering. This is the case in Hungary, Korea, Poland, Slovenia, France, Estonia, Spain and Mexico.

Would you help a stranger? Nearly 47% of people across OECD countries say they have helped a stranger in the last month. OECD countries with a large share of respondents reporting to have helped a stranger also tend to have high levels of volunteering, Around 65% of people in the United States, Australia and Canada reported helping a stranger in the last month.

I highly recommend taking a look at all the categories and data (the health info is particularly interesting); however, if a primary concern is development of a sense of responsibility for the stranger in terms of volunteering or one who crosses one’s path – Americans fair fairly well against their peers. Now, if one wishes to have a serious conversation about the social assistance state – in light of CA – then we should be talking about those countries that appear to have little or no volunteering.

Now, I do want to be clear, I am not attacking the social welfare systems of France or Spain or even Norway (as I do not know enough about the data for such countries); however, if we are going to have a serious conversation about the cautions in CA, it appears to me that is a far more appropriate starting point.  However, I will also caution that in all of these conversations basic justice must be achieved before we can properly talk about leaving room for individual charity.  Paragraph 48 of CA is vague and often gets pulled out as the proof text for those who wish to reduce the size and scope of government placing more trust in the market itself. I am well aware that in the coming months the Catholic community will have a vibrant and robust debate concerning a multitude of political issues – including the status of poverty programs in the budget. There is much room for creative thinking, differences of prudential judgment, and investigation into the rich themes of Catholic social teaching. Into this debate, let us be guided by the evidence and the reality that whatever else we may be, we are not the social assistance welfare state.