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

Just Welfare Policy

James W. Skillen


November 26, 2010
by James W. Skillen

(This is a continuation of our series using edited versions of articles Jim Skillen wrote for The Public Justice Report which introduce our Guidelines for Government and Citizenship.)

The Center's Guideline on welfare policy is predicated on the same two basic elements of principled pluralism that undergird many of the Center's policy arguments. Structural pluralism emphasizes the different organizational and institutional responsibilities humans have. Confessional pluralism is government's obligation, as a matter of principle, to give equal public-legal treatment to people of all faiths.

With principled pluralism at the foundation, the Guideline begins: "The call to be a 'neighbor'—to help those who are in need—is addressed to all people and all institutions. Receiving assistance should enable those in need to reach or return to self-sufficiency and be in a position to help others." But as the Guideline goes on to say: "Whether, and to what extent, government should render assistance to those in need depends on the nature of the need and the responsibilities of other institutions." Government's responsibility exists in close connection with institutions and organizations such as families, churches, schools, social services organizations, and businesses that have different purposes and identities. Each in its own way bears responsibility for neighbors in need.

The Center also acknowledges: "As part of its calling to promote public justice, government bears responsibility to guard against the emergence of intractable poverty in society and to ensure that appropriate and effective steps are taken to address such poverty." Systemic injustices such as racial discrimination or the inability to access jobs, education or health care must be addressed by government.

Yet government must also address poverty through prevention, that is, "by upholding a just society that includes the protection of civil rights and responsibilities; by ensuring access to effective education, good health care, and decent housing; and by fostering conditions for a healthy economy."

Government’s preventive responsibility involves cooperation with other institutions and organizations that are the primary preventers of poverty and the primary responders to people in need. "As part of its responsibility to uphold a just society, government must protect and promote a thriving social sector to help meet diverse welfare needs. Government should fulfill its welfare responsibility in part by underwriting the work of non-government organizations (NGOs), which are close to the needs and devoted to alleviating them." Government cannot take the place of family, friends, counselors, or job-training specialists, but the work of these individuals and organizations can be supported by government in a variety of ways.

Yet you might ask: why should government do anything at all? In response, the Guideline states: "The nation's welfare obligations do not rest with NGOs alone, because people in dire poverty need help even when their neighbors are not generous or when economic conditions restrict private charity. Moreover, need and wealth are often found in different places. For these reasons, government will at times have to act in ways that go beyond preventive measures and the support of NGOs, for it must address critical conditions that endanger the welfare of society as a whole."

Think of slavery or of low-quality schools for those who do not have the resources to move to a better location or purchase private education. These are conditions to which government must respond by changing laws—perhaps even the Constitution—so that the institutional framework of society can be transformed.

The final word that this Guideline offers on welfare policy relates to confessional pluralism: "When government does partner with NGOs, it must protect their autonomy and diversity… In keeping with the First Amendment, government must grant faith-based organizations the same opportunities offered to all other service groups and protect their distinctive religious character if they become its partners."

It is essential that the law uphold the right of NGOs to hire staff members who comply with their purpose and philosophy. To deny NGOs this is to try to force such organizations to be extensions of government rather than respecting them as partners with government.

—James W. Skillen is the former president of the Center for Public Justice.


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”