Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Welfare Responsibilities

Stanley Carlson-Thies


December 31, 2010
?by Stanley Carlson-Thies

Our era of vigorous debate about the size and tasks of government is a perfect time to revisit the Center for Public Justice’s Guideline on Welfare.  What we find there is at odds with the boisterous current tug of war between less government and more government.

The Guideline’s contrarian approach is signaled in its very first words:  “The call to be a ‘neighbor’—to help those who are in need—is addressed to all people and all institutions.”  For the purpose of such help is to “enable those in need to reach or return to self-sufficiency and be in a position to help others.”  That outcome requires more than sending welfare checks or giving charitable handouts.  Fighting poverty requires what candidate Barack Obama called an “all hands on deck” approach.

Government’s Role

What about the government?  Its chief anti-poverty strategy is “preventive”—“fostering conditions for a healthy economy”; “ensuring access to effective education, good health care, and decent housing”; and “upholding a just society that includes the protection of civil rights and responsibilities.”  And yet deep and persistent poverty may still occur.  What then?

The Guideline proposes that part of the government’s “public justice” task is to be watchful for the development of “intractable poverty”—poverty that ensnares people and communities.  And the government should “ensure that appropriate and effective steps are taken to address such poverty.”  But that is not to say that the first, best, and only response is more government welfare.  

Recall that “all people and all institutions” must respond.  So the Guideline stresses that an essential part of the government’s justice responsibility is to “promote and protect a thriving social sector to help meet diverse welfare needs.”  Faith-based groups, neighborhood organizations, local branches of national charities, churches, and many others have unique roles, because they have their own unique capabilities and their own particular connections to people and places in need.

And yet, private charity may be inadequate.  “[P]eople in dire poverty need help even when their neighbors are not generous or economic conditions restrict private charity.  Moreover, need and wealth are often found in different places.”  So a direct government response to welfare remains essential:  a systematic set of welfare programs—action beyond encouraging private charity and beyond promoting a robust economy and good housing, education, and health care.  

But even the government’s own welfare response ought not disregard the responsibilities of others.  Welfare help should engage the energy and ingenuity of poor people and communities, not lead to dependence.

Faith-Based Initiative

When the government has decided that it must act, it “should fulfill its welfare responsibility in part by underwriting the work of non-government organizations . . . which are close to the needs and devoted to alleviating them.”  

This is the policy we now call the “faith-based initiative”:  government collaborating with faith-based and secular private organizations by adding its financial resources to their ability to provide tailored assistance.  That partnership will only flourish, the Guideline stresses, if the government takes care to protect the distinctive characteristics of those private charities, including the many faith-based ones.  Religious charities should not have to suppress their faith character when they agree to help the government assist the needy.

Beyond Polarized Alternatives

Democrats and Republicans together reconstructed the American welfare system along these lines, beginning in the mid-1990s.  More real reform is needed—the Guideline says help must be both generous and effective.  That requires conservatives to consider what government should do, not only its failures.  And it requires progressives to stop demanding the secularization of faith-based groups before they may join the other hands “on deck.”

—Stanley Carlson-Thies is founder and president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance.  He served on a task force of President Obama's Advisory Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and on the initial staff of the Bush White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.  He is co-editor with James Skillen of Welfare in America:  Christian Perspectives on a Policy in Crisis (1996).

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