Public Arguments

Once again, this March, the USCC Administrative Board injected itself into the national political debate, just before Congress voted on welfare reform, and once again, “objectively,” it came down on the side of the Democratic Party.

Nonetheless, this statement was better than average, if only rhetorically. (The good parts, I suspect, come from Bishop John Ricard, of Baltimore.) The March 19 statement, “Moral Principles and Policy Priorities for Welfare Reform,” asserted: “The [welfare] status quo is unacceptable. It is children who pay the greatest price for the failures of the current system. Genuine welfare reform is a moral imperative and urgent national priority.” It continued: “Our purpose is not to make any partisan point, . . . As religious teachers, we draw our directions from consistent Catholic moral principles, not ideological or political agendas.”

Still, as one who has been studying and writing about family and welfare reform for three decades, I find this statement remarkably untouched by the best scholarly writing of recent years, naive, and internally incoherent. It shares in the lack of radical self-criticism on the part of many on the left. On the one hand, the statement speaks of “reform”; on the other hand, it doesn’t want to halt the flow of money to mothers of illegitimate children — the heart of the crisis.

To its credit, the new statement introduces the language of “illegitimacy and dependency,” which began to replace the undifferentiated and merely materialistic language of “poverty” just a few years ago. This shift largely came about through a bi-partisan seminar on family and welfare sponsored jointly by Marquette University and the American Enterprise Institute, which resulted in a 1987 report, The New Consensus on Family and Welfare. Among the scholars who took part in that seminar were Alice Rivlin, now heading the Office of Management and Budget under President Clinton, and Robert Reischauer, until recently (under the Democrats) head of the Congressional Budget Office. The seminar’s bi-partisan task was to determine what worked well in the War on Poverty and what did not work well, and then to propose a comprehensive set of 60 or more concrete suggestions for reform. The USCC statement seems innocent of such work, as well as of work done by Marvin Olasky, the Hudson Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and many others.

Surprisingly, too, the USCC ignores the powerful section 48 of Centesimus annus, which gives a trenchant analysis of what goes wrong with welfare programs entrusted to that new phenomenon in history, the gigantesque Social Assistance State — this phenomenon is found in virtually all of the advanced welfare states. The pope has also spoken quite explicitly of the ravages it has caused in Italy. In section 48, he wrote:

By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to [1] a loss of human energies and [2] an inordinate increase of public agencies, which [3] are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving clients, and which [4] are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending [numbers added].

On another point, the Administrative State unwittingly subsidizes out-of-wedlock births. Under conditions of far more extreme poverty than today’s, illegitimacy was a comparatively rare phenomenon until 1960. In the United States, the figure has now reached 29 percent, with the fastest growing segment among whites, in rural as well as in urban areas, i.e., wherever the welfare state reaches. By 1983, the number of illegitimate births among whites shot past those among blacks. In Britain, illegitimacy has now reached 32 percent (it fell from 7 percent in 1840 to 3 percent in 1900, and was still as low as 8 percent in 1980); in Sweden, it is over 50 percent.

In his message to Congress in 1962, in introducing the legislation that after his death was to become the War on Poverty, President John F. Kennedy used words very like those of the USCC statement of 1995 — his aim, too, was to “strengthen families.” By that criterion, the programs established in the 1960s did not succeed. No one can deny the good intentions behind the War on Poverty (or those behind the USCC statement of 1995). No one intended the devastating results, at least not among the young, healthy, and able-bodied poor. I myself, in cheering on the War on Poverty, never promised anyone: “If you vote for these programs, in 30 years you will see a 400 percent increase in births out of wedlock, and a 500 percent increase in violent crime.” No one intended that. But that’s what we got.

Something is plainly wrong in the way we designed those programs. They run counter to human nature. Our thinking was materialistic. If a person qualifies on purely monetary grounds, then bang! no questions asked, no civil reciprocity demanded — “Here’s the money.” Pure dependency was thus established. A huge welfare establishment protected it and made sure that many never got off of it.

Meanwhile, far poorer immigrants streamed to this country, in numbers not matched since our earlier history, to take the abundance of entry-level jobs opened up by an expanding service economy. The nation created some 45 million new jobs between 1970 and 1995, even while the dependency of some nine million healthy, able-bodied, young adults on welfare deepened. Persons in father-absent, female-headed households with children became the largest (and fastest growing) segment of the poor — 12 million persons. This welfare system has become so destructive that even the USCC now calls the status quo intolerable.

“However,” the USCC goes on, “we oppose abandonment of the federal government’s necessary role in helping families overcome poverty and meet their children’s basic needs.” But that sentiment is exactly where this whole destructive process began. Reliance on government is a honey trap, as many of the new immigrants (especially from Asia) now warn one another: “Avoid the welfare system like the plague.” Why can’t the USCC see this? Perhaps because many of the efforts for the poor run by the church today now depend on federal grants. The USCC should examine its own dependency.

I am especially discouraged because the USCC has borrowed a fateful line from the secular left: “Denying needed benefits for children born to mothers on welfare can hurt the children and pressure their mothers toward abortion and sterilization.” This same argument is used to promote contraception. Meanwhile, a disproportionate share of the nation’s 1.5 million abortions a year is already taken up by women on welfare. Welfare has destroyed the role of fathers in the home as nothing before it ever did — neither poverty nor slavery nor the enormous unemployment of the Depression.

The USCC cannot go on as if the eagle of American social analysis has only one wing — the left. The left led the way to some real achievements, notably in improved conditions among the elderly since 1965. Among the young, however, it has led to much unnecessary self-destruction.

The courts won’t allow government agencies today to talk to the moral and religious questions involved in family life, while on these matters the secular left has long since lost its way. If the USCC tried, it would have a lot to say that no one else is saying. But to do that it will have to be a lot more Catholic, more original, and more creative — and fly on more than one wing.


Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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