America magazine publishes a guest blog from Meghan Clark, an assistant professor of theology and religious studies at St. John’s University and member of the US Bishop’s Committee on Social Justice. A longer version originally appeared on the blog Catholic Moral Theology.

“The choice of Paul Ryan as the GOP Vice-Presidential Nominee has moved Catholic social teaching once again to the forefront of public debate. One of the most common refrains I hear in these discussions is the justification for cutting social programs like SNAP using John Paul II’s caution against the social assistance state in Centesimus Annus. The assumption is that the United States of America is or is approaching becoming the social assistance or welfare state. As a Catholic moral theologian, it is wonderful to be debating the principles of CST in the public square, and even in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. However, as we debate the principles that guide a Catholic ethics of poverty, social justice, government, and the common good, we must abide by two firm rules. First, it is imperative that we get the basic principles of Catholic social teaching correct (I have tried to do this elsewhere on the principle of subsidiarity). Second, it is crucial that we engage contemporary reality as it exists, and this involves not only the contemporary context but concrete evidence.

“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”. . . 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.”

“John Paul II acknowledges the positive role of government, places national government in relationship to local and intermediary levels of government, and the necessary limits of government action with regards to the full dignity of the human person and the common good.  Let me be as clear – the primary concern for John Paul II is the dignity of the human person and the fullness of the common good (which includes but is not limited to the public order role of government). 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. 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.   Moreover, the recipients of most social assistance are the working poor and children. (A key resource for poverty data is the USCCB’s updated POVERTY USA website.)

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 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. 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, the United States has higher rates of volunteering and greater time spent per day in volunteer activities than OECD average. 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 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 Centesimus Annus, 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.

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