Subsidiarity at Work: A Catholics Vision of Social Policy

Is it possible to craft social legislation that is effective, but at the same time accommodates the obligations of human dignity? I believe it is and would like to discuss my efforts, through welfare reform and other targeted social, charitable, and educational reforms, to do so.

In 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton. It dismantled one of the original, overarching federal assistance programs—Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)—and replaced it with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), a block grant program to the states. TANF gives enormous flexibility to states in determining how to use the block grant, while requiring states to place an increasing percentage of caseloads in work-related activities.

As ranking member of the Human Resources Sub-committee on the House Ways and Means Committee during the 103rd Congress, I drafted the welfare reform bill because too few of our poorer citizens were becoming economically self-sufficient and too many were trapped in a cycle of poverty. The welfare system as it stood had failed in its “war on poverty;” a new direction had to be taken. Indeed, the voter profile of churchgoing Catholics, as discussed in the November 1998 issue of CRISIS (“The Mind of the Catholic Voter”), accurately captured my own approach to this issue. I was concerned about the poor and how our then-current welfare system had failed them, but I was neither reflexively anti-government nor economically laissez-faire.

I would suggest that, thus far, taking welfare in that new direction has worked. And while I am aware that the passage of welfare reform was, indeed, an event of considerable gravity, having serious, long-term economic implications for many individuals and families, we have reason to be optimistic that this legislation is helping people to change their lives for the better.

Commitment to the importance of family and work guided the crafting of the welfare reform bill, as well as commitment to the importance of the intermediate organizations of community and faith. These commitments are essential to crafting good policy because they are intrinsic to the lives of most citizens in a pluralistic democracy; they are part of a common language. They are also, not incidentally, prominent considerations in the life and thought of the Church.

In her teaching role, the Church—and this pope in particular—has much to offer those of us in the public square who debate how to achieve justice, that is, how “men and women of goodwill” live, work, and create the conditions whereby more people benefit more fully from our liberty and our resources. As George Weigel notes, John Paul II’s work has created a useful framework for “conducting the public argument about how we should order our lives, loves, and loyalties in society today.” I agree and would propose to use the framework of Centesimus Annus to discuss welfare reform and the crafting of social policy in general.

Work Pays

What do we know about the current state of welfare? Welfare caseloads have declined by 45 percent from January 1994 to December 1998. We have the lowest number of people on welfare since 1969. According to the most recent data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, 1.7 million adults who were on welfare in 1996 were working by March 1997—representing an increase of 30 percent from the previous year. But even as caseloads decline and former beneficiaries move into jobs, the average available federal funding per family on welfare has almost doubled since 1994: In 1998, average available funding was $6,071, compared with $3,312 in 1994. According to a study by the Urban Institute (“Does Work Pay?”), if a single mother is currently working even half-time, she is financially better off than she would be if she were receiving AFDC benefits. And, according to caseload data from the Census Bureau, welfare caseloads and child poverty have declined simultaneously. We also are witnessing the single biggest decline in black child poverty since the Bureau of the Census began tracking such data. I am not suggesting that there is a direct correlation between these declines and welfare reform, but I do offer them as a social indicator.

Additional social indicators are similarly encouraging. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Epidemiology’s national vital statistics report (October 1998), “during the years 1995-1997, all measures of nonmarital births have been fairly stable, following more than a decade of rapid and substantial increases.” And according to the latest data, teen birth rates have also declined. Again, making a direct causal link between these indicators and welfare reform is not possible. However, to ignore such trends completely would be to dismiss the effects of one of the most significant pieces of legislation in a generation. Remember, welfare reform did not happen silently, out of earshot of the public. It is not unreasonable to conclude that many individuals were aware of the law’s pending implementation and changed their behavior accordingly. And, it should be noted, those opposed to the new law certainly did not dismiss or minimize its potential effects—perhaps they merely erred in their assessment of the nature of those effects, rather than their degree. And these data should also help allay the “moral ecology” concerns that are at the fore of many people’s minds today, as shown by the Crisis poll of Catholic voters. Indeed, results show that 75 percent of Catholics and 79 percent of “religiously active” Catholics, perceive a “crisis of individual morality” affecting the nation. Those concerned about personal responsibility and individual morality can take heart from the decline in births for both teenage and single women.

I also would like to note what the Council of Economic Advisors’ 1999 Annual Report to Congress stated about the link between welfare reform and the caseload decline:

Given that the national welfare caseload actually fell by 42.3 percent during this period, it appears that improved labor market conditions were responsible for roughly one fifth of that decline. Similar analyses indicate that the share of the decline since 1996 that can be explained by the strength of the economy is much smaller, reflecting the importance of other changes, especially welfare reform.

Cornerstones of Social Policy

I believe that welfare reform has, thus far, been effective because it was crafted around specific, achievable social goals, namely work retention and family stability. These goals implicitly acknowledge the indispensable cultural role of the family and the need for solidarity and community that both family and work provide. Not coincidentally, the new law accommodates the truth and the imperative that culture should precede politics—also one of the themes of Centesimus Annus—and should respect those entities—such as schools, community organizations, and faith-based groups that the Church and Pope John Paul II have rightly maintained are the cornerstones of a healthy society.

In Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II writes, “Authentic democracy is possible only in a State ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person.” A correct conception of the person, or the “truth about man,” does not ignore the intrinsic importance of the family to both individuals and society. While it may seem self-evident that we should encourage the protection of family unity through our public policies, it has not always been thought so. Eradicating poverty was a common goal of many in the public policy community in the early days of the Great Society, and it was regarded as an achievable goal. But such policy ignored the truth that, as the pope states in Centesimus Annus, “It is not possible to understand man on the basis of economics alone…. Man is understood in a more complete way when he is situated within the sphere of culture through his language, history, and the position he takes toward the fundamental events of life, such as birth, love, work, and death.”

Family: In attempting to avoid the flaws of the original anti-poverty programs, we sought to address, where possible, the social and cultural roots of poverty. The family is the most fundamental social structure we have, the very source of life and love. So the 1996 welfare law was crafted to provide disincentives for out-of-wedlock births, especially among teenagers. It also requires that underage, unmarried mothers live with an adult family member; allows reduced benefits for mothers who have more than one child out-of-wedlock; stipulates that mothers must cooperate in establishing their children’s paternity; and requires that underage mothers finish high school, reducing the possibility of intergenerational poverty. Further, the law establishes two cash bonuses for those states that: 1) reduce welfare dependency and increase the number of children living in a two-parent household; and 2) reduce the rate of illegitimacy.

Subsidiarity, solidarity, community, and faith: Precisely because individuals properly locate themselves in a “sphere of culture,” welfare policy must recognize and accommodate that sphere, which includes, but extends beyond, the family. It includes what the pope calls “intermediate communities.” We did not craft welfare reform to provide mere cash assistance. We crafted it to teach people about making choices and changing behavior. We crafted it as a more integrated approach to poverty and the poor. We crafted it with a commitment to reflecting a whole range of social-service providers and to the principle of subsidiarity. We believed, as the pope states so well in Centesimus Annus, that the welfare state, “by intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility … leads to a loss of human energies and an … increase of public agencies which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than concern for their clients.”

A provision in the new welfare law called “Charitable Choice” is a good example of the application of subsidarity. By reflecting in our public policy the belief that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need, we create a place in our public life for institutions that foster solidarity and community and offer a moral vision. Charitable Choice greatly expands the ability of states administering TANF through federal block grants to provide services to welfare recipients through contracts with charitable, religious, and private organizations. In addition, states can now also provide such services through vouchers or certificates. Federal welfare providers did not have this flexibility under AFDC. Simply stated, Charitable Choice places religious organizations on an equal, nondiscriminatory basis with other groups when states decide to contract with private institutions for welfare services.

Those of us who supported Charitable Choice believed that faith-based institutions, in particular, could effectively address the moral and spiritual dimension of poverty and could respond to that “deeper human need,” which the public square neglects or stifles only at its own peril. Indeed, some scholars have confirmed the critical social role played by religious institutions. In a significant 1986 study Richard B. Freeman of the National Bureau of Economic Research and Harvard University found that church attendance was the most significant factor in determining who, among black inner-city youth, would find permanent, mainstream employment and liberate themselves from chronic poverty.

Work: Work is intrinsic to a person’s sense of dignity. As John Paul II notes: “Work thus belongs to the vocation of every person; indeed man expresses and fulfills himself by working.”

In crafting welfare reform, we did not seek merely to reduce the welfare caseload; we sought to create incentives and supports to help people move into jobs as soon as they were able. Indeed, since the implementation of TANF, we have observed increased funding for those programs providing support for the transition from welfare to work, such as job preparation, transportation, and child care. It was also my conviction, in crafting this legislation, that there exists not only a personal responsibility to work, but also a social one. Individuals who can work should do so. We are socially and economically enriched when all able- bodied adults participate in the economy. Provisions in the bill such as time limits (a lifetime maximum of five years of cash assistance); a work requirement, including sanctions for those who refuse to engage in a work activity after a maximum of 24 months cash assistance; and, in many states, an increased earning disregard that allows welfare recipients to keep more of their earnings without being driven off the rolls all have a compounding effect and help move people into the work force.

Renewal Alliance

It is important to note that welfare reform was not the conclusion of a critical social policy debate; rather, it signaled the beginning of another, equally critical discussion of how we can effectively address the plight of the poorest in our society. Any “second generation” of legislation should be animated by the same recognition of the importance of family, subsidiarity, and work that informed the welfare reform bill.

Toward that end, a number of legislators and I are members of a bicameral planning group, the Renewal Alliance, which has sponsored a legislative package comprised of three bills. These bills address three components of social rejuvenation: community renewal, increased educational opportunities for low-income families, and economic empowerment.

Charity Empowerment Act: Because of the advantages enjoyed by religious and private nonprofits to address personal values and behavior, it is important to continue to restore authority and resources to religious, nonprofit, and volunteer groups. The Charity Empowerment Act comprises the following: a charity tax credit, whereby individuals would be permitted to give directly to private, antipoverty charities and then receive a tax credit for that donation; donor liability protections that would raise the legal standard of liability for the donation of goods and services for charitable purposes, thereby reducing the threat of frivolous lawsuits; Charitable Choice expansion that expands the current Charitable Choice option to include all those institutions receiving federal block grants, not just TANF; and a provision that allows IRAs to be donated to charities without tax penalty.

Educational Opportunity Act: Education is critical to anyone’s effort to rise above poverty and fully participate in our nation’s economic life. This bill offers scholarships to low-income families. The scholarships could be used at any private, public, or religious school located in an impoverished neighborhood.

American Community Renewal Act: Restoring economic health and the opportunity for work to the shattered economies of our inner-city neighborhoods is one of the ways we can help to sustain and protect families. This bill would target tax and regulatory relief and savings incentives to 100 of the poorest communities in the nation, identified as “renewal zones.”

My purpose in outlining the above approach to policy-making is not to suggest that laws can solve cultural dilemmas or re-create the culture. We must be much humbler than that. What a legislative agenda can accomplish, if thoughtfully formulated, is to revivify those cultural institutions that help to negotiate the terrain between the individual and the state and assist us in better utilizing our freedom to achieve the common good. I am committed to limited but activist government that does not disavow a responsibility to the more vulnerable members of our society, but which also does not attempt to usurp the role of, or replace, other social structures.

But consider, for a moment, what happens when policy-making is detached from the truth that culture precedes politics, when it is formulated according to the conviction that laws and public policy can accomplish grand and noble ends in a singular fashion. A case in point is Vice President Al Gore’s “Livability Agenda.” He currently dedicates himself to an agenda to help suburban Americans “spend less time in traffic” and laments that “people move out to the suburbs … only to find they’re playing leap frog with bulldozers.” This is the same Al Gore who came to national public office talking about “reinventing government.” Note how quickly the grandiose becomes the trivial.

By contrast, the kind of policy I envision liberates rather than diminishes precisely because it surrenders itself to a culture of freedom that is disciplined by a commitment to human dignity, solidarity, and community.

And we are wise to surrender our freedom to these commitments. We cannot reinvent ourselves or our lives through public policies. Nor does public policy possess the special power to heal all broken families, alleviate all human suffering, and eliminate material want. It is, perhaps, the particular burden and understanding of some to know that this, too, is the “truth about man.”


  • Sen. Rick Santorum

    Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania was a candidate for the Republican nomination for President in 2012. He is currently working in Dallas as head of the Christian movie company, EchoLight Studios.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...