Public Arguments

Welfare EWAWKI!

Tug on the welfare question today and you pull out many tangled strands: The limits of state action, the role of incentives, the law of unintended consequences, pain alleviated, harm done, the efficacy of private alternatives, the destruction of a culture of virtue. This issue of CRISIS takes a hard look at the condition of welfare recipients — a condition with a moral dimension that Catholic social thought (except for Centesimus annus) too often overlooks. To ameliorate the lot of the poor, we should above all, as Dorothy Day used to say, “make it easier for them to be good.” Does welfare today help the poor to be good? The evidence seems massively negative.

Nonetheless, regular readers of Origins, the documentary service of the U.S. Catholic Conference, will have observed that the Catholic bishops, individually and collectively, frequently call for the expansion of the nation’s welfare system, not for its elimination or radical restructuring. Indeed, para. 48 of Centesimus annus is far more critical of “the Social Assistance State” than any U.S. bishop has been. Which leads to the question: Do the bishops have any idea of the harm being done by welfare?

If the question of welfare — in this context, we mean Aid for Families with Dependent Children — were only a question of compassion, assistance, And demonstrated benefit, not only would the present posture of the bishops be correct, but all persons of good will would wish to join them in being good samaritans. Even if AFDC were, on the whole, of marginal benefit, practically a wash between the good and the harm done, most of us would gladly support it.

The problem is that AFDC is doing such devastating harm to the nation that unless it is halted — unless, in President Clinton’s words, we achieve EWAWKI, the “end of welfare as we know it” — the twin contagions of illegitimacy and more or less permanent welfare dependency are likely to spread throughout more than half the childbearing population. They are already beyond that among blacks and nearly halfway there among whites, and still growing rapidly.

Given the admirable Catholic teachings on the social importance of the family, it is really quite shocking that our bishops have been so slow to perceive the mortal danger arising from AFDC. This is one result, I think, of their being unwitting captives of the mainstream Left in their ways of thinking about social policy. Despite their tradition, they have not been rigorous in their guardianship over the unintended consequences of state programs.

Many of our bishops have grown up in loyal Democratic homes. Many testify to the benefits that the New Deal brought their own families. A few reveal visceral suspicion of, if not hostility to, Republicans. Others make no distinction between the programs of the New Deal and those of the Great Society. But the truth is that there was a clear dividing line, a moral watershed, between the underlying philosophy of the 1930s and the 1960s. The programs of the 1930s were moral and judgmental, whereas those of the 1960s were for the first time in American history explicitly nonjudgmental, amoral, and materialistic.

In the 1930s, the impetus behind reform was still largely religious and moral in inspiration; after World War II, the direction of social reforms passed more and more into the hands of social science professionals — imprescriptive, sanitized of religious symbolism, value neutral, painstakingly nonjudgmental, egalitarian, and positivist. No longer could one distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor. The poor were not regarded as moral agents but as passive victims (as in the amoral slogan, “Don’t blame the victim”). No longer could one make moral distinctions among the poor, as one could about others; left-wingers have long been judgmental about “the rich.” Morality was removed as far as possible from social policy — the only standard that mattered was purely materialistic, and reduced in practice to measures of income.

To the uncritical mind, income seems like a suitable egalitarian measure. But expenditures are a far better measure of the human condition than income. This is because income is often beyond one’s control, but expenditures reveal moral choices regarding how one spends what one has. Federal figures show, moreover, that the poor report spending three times more than they report as income. Many retired professors and others suddenly show up in the poverty figures when their salary stops, even though they retire to homes that are paid off and begin to draw down their savings. But besides those who spend from earlier acquired capital, many of the poor are near-geniuses at “Waste not, want not.” Some are thrifty, prudent, and often generous beyond compare, while others dispose of illegal or at least unreported sources of income profligately.

Nearly all of us American Catholics (of a certain age) have been poor. We know real differences among the poor. We know what works when you are poor — and what doesn’t. My father (and no doubt your father) used to say that if you saved seven cents on every dollar you spend, by looking for bargains and buying off-brand names, and a hundred other little bits of lore he had acquired, you gain a steady investment return of seven percent. By income, you could be as poor as other people, but by expenditures you could be on the road to riches. (Compounded savings, at that rate, double in value every ten years.)

My father also valued education, not only formal education. He believed in learning everything he could in every conversation. He liked how-to books and self-improvement books. He looked for models to imitate and techniques to learn. He regarded life as a study assignment, full of pleasure and surprises. When I was born, he was making $3.00 per day, $18.00 per week, $940 per year, and even in his best year he did not make over $10,000. Among us, “poor” was an honorable word, which meant that you had to be smarter and more self-disciplined — not so “spoiled” — as others. My father performed prodigies of savings.

“Home economics” of this sort makes a great difference in the human condition of those described as “the poor.” Poverty is not value-neutral. It is, or can be, value-rich, priceless even; or it can be morally stultifying or embittering or a million other possibilities. How those concerned about the poor approach poverty makes a great deal of moral difference. The approach this country has used since the 1960s is inhuman, inhumane, and exceedingly damaging to human beings. To end welfare as we know it is a moral imperative.

To this end, Crisis is publishing in this issue a vivid description of the moral effects of current welcome programs on marriage and the family in poor urban neighborhoods. We invite our readers to ask themselves, “Is this what I want my tax dollars to support? Is this a moral program, with admirable moral effects? Or is it, in fact, a morally corrupting, socially destructive program?”

We believe that all of our readers would be willing to give substantial amounts of their own income, even through the tax system, to help the poor. We doubt that they would be willing to give money to damage the poor.

Professor Elijah Anderson, whose essay we here publish, has tried to describe the reality on our inner-city streets as accurately as he can, in part so that our society will do better. An honest and eloquent reporter, he holds explicitly that more jobs for young men are necessary. But of course during the years of his research an unprecedented tide of new jobs was being created in this country (more than 18 million of them), including in the nation’s urban centers, and immigrants by the millions were swarming to them and finding them.

No doubt, social invention did not die with the generation of the 1930s or the 1960s. No doubt, our generation can give poverty programs a new beginning. Yet if we are to do that, we have to start by being ruthlessly honest about what we are currently doing wrong.

The editors of Crisis believe quite strongly that the Catholic social ethic, beginning with the family and the humble ethic of what Digby Anderson in The Loss of Virtue calls “home economics,” offers a much broader and deeper vision of how to help the poor than the social science establishment has offered since the 1960s. We at Crisis will be trying to outline that new vision in occasional issues in the near future. In this issue, we begin with what we believe to be accurate description of where we now stand. We find Professor Elijah Anderson’s findings at the same time both true to our own experiences and shocking.

Still, there is one feature missing from Professor Anderson’s study: the way in which the pathology of illegitimacy is now sweeping through America’s white poor. Rural areas are now becoming as devastated by well-intended welfare programs as urban areas have been. No one has been as honest and scrupulously observant in these matters as Charles Murray, an Iowan born as a Democrat, volunteer in Thailand for the Peace Corps, and long a director of a center for the scientific evaluation of social science programs.

A Turning Point

Only a few people noticed it but last October 29 a turning point appeared in the history of the welfare state. On that date Charles Murray published an article called “The Coming White Underclass” in the Wall Street Journal — and then the important thing happened: Practically everybody, publicly and privately, said he had it right, and that we have got to put an end to welfare as we know it.

Charles Murray is a friend of mine, and I can tell you this much: The night before his piece came out Charles was hunkered down again, just as he has had to be ever since he wrote Losing Ground ten years ago. In that book he pointed out that after years of the War on Poverty, poverty in measurable ways was getting worse. That argument incited a firestorm of criticism — everybody who was anybody in the welfare debate had to comment on it, mostly to try to dent its effect, because it called the emperor naked. Ever since 1984, therefore, Charles Murray has been one critic of welfare that proponents have had to pillory. They have had to caricature him (Scrooge has been a favorite image). A sunny, good-humored, all-American fellow from Newton, Iowa, Charles has had to become accustomed to the journalistic tag “crabby” — as in “Even the crabby Charles Murray would probably agree….”

This time it was totally different. So many columnists wrote about Murray’s October 29 column so approvingly that even President Clinton was asked about it and had to concede that Murray was mostly right on the substance. I called Mr. Murray to confirm my impression of the reaction; he was even more awestruck. “It’s still coming in,” he said. “Overwhelmingly positive. I’m not sure I can get used to this.”

“My proposition is,” Murray had written in that article, “that illegitimacy is the single most important social problem of our time — more important than crime, drugs, poverty, illiteracy, welfare or homelessness because it drives everything else.” Doug Besharov makes a similar point in this issue. “The new trend that threatens the U.S. is white illegitimacy,” Murray said, pointing out that in 1991, nearly 708,000 babies were born to single white women, representing 22 percent of white births — just four percentage points lower than the black illegitimacy rate in the early 1960s. That rate led Daniel Patrick Moynihan to write his famous memo predicting explosive escalation in the next generation, as has now happened. The black illegitimacy rate has exploded to 68 percent.

The white rate, Murray points out, is now also poised for rapid take-off. It is already 48 percent among white women with less than a high school education. It is 44 percent among white women below the poverty line. These rates have been rising rapidly. They will soon spiral beyond remedy. The Murphy Browns of this world — women with family incomes above $75,000 — contribute 1 percent of white illegitimate babies. Those below the poverty line have 94 percent of them.

The take-off in black illegitimacy since 1965 has been calamitous for the black community, Murray concludes. “But the brutal truth is that American society as a whole could survive when illegitimacy became epidemic within a comparatively small ethnic community. It cannot survive the same epidemic among whites.” Crime rates that even now are not endurable could be expected to explode exponentially.

Illegitimacy, in short, is not a black problem. It is a white problem. Indeed, it is a problem — to broaden the canvas beyond Murray’s article — virtually universal among welfare states. The illegitimacy rate in Britain is a little higher than in the United States (and almost entirely white in composition), and that in Sweden is nearly twice that. In the Catholic countries of Europe, while illegitimacy rates are lower, the social assistance state is cutting like a solvent into strong family traditions — and the Pope has begun to question welfarism severely.

What some writers call “the feminization of poverty” is more accurately called the masculinization of irresponsibility. Never have so many able-bodied young males, even in harsher times, abandoned so many young women with children. The lines of causation are murky, but somehow the signal has gone out to young women that males do not have to be made accountable — no matter what, the government will play the daddy of last resort. For males and females and their children — for families and for whole societies — it is a deadly signal.

As luck would have it, the gatewatcher of the Finance Committee in the Senate is the one person in America who grasped Charles Murray’s point long before Murray made it: the same Daniel Patrick Moynihan who saw this tragedy arising 30 years ago. “Health care is not in crisis,” the Senator recently said. The truer, profounder crisis is self-multiplying illegitimacy, which has the potential, if it is not stopped, of destroying the democratic dream. The Senator has threatened to hold health care reform hostage to welfare reform.

The nation is at a turning point. The country will have to end welfare as we know it — whether President Clinton is ready or not — and probably ahead of health reform. Compared to the radical destruction unloosed by family breakdown, health care reform is like reassigning dining rooms on the Titanic. Maybe it will save money, probably it won’t, but without welfare reform everybody is going down anyway.

The Remedy?

Crisis is not yet ready to abandon the position sketched out by the Working Group on Family and Welfare led by your editor-in-chief in 1986-87, whose Report was published in The New Consensus on Family and Welfare. That report found no silver bullet, but suggested some 70 small practical reforms.

Still, Charles Murray (who also signed that Report) practices such a ruthless honesty that it pricks one’s own intellectual conscience. When he says, in effect, Welfare has been more devastating to the poor since 1965 than almost anything in our nation’s history except slavery — in its destruction of the family is even worse than slavery — his argument is not easy to rebut. Never have the poor suffered such pathologies as today. Never have their families been so devastated.

Murray proposes announcing that, beginning two (or three) years from today, government will no longer pay AFDC to mothers of children born out of wedlock. Continue to cover those children already born or in the womb. But on the announced day, society will go back to the rules civilized societies always lived under before.

This, Murray suggests, is tough love. It is the way civilized societies heretofore have always avoided the current plague of illegitimacy.

Douglas Besharov, in an article below, offers a more moderate alternative. Something will have to be done. Crisis will follow this debate closely.

The Philosopher Pope

The English-speaking world is much in the debt of Sister Theresa Sandok, OSM, of Bellarmine College in Louisville for her graceful translation of the philosophical essays of Karol Wojtyla, presented at various international philosophical conferences from 1954 until he became Pope in 1978. These essays have been published by Peter Lang under the title Person and Community, and represent Wojtyla’s mature work as holder of the Chair of Philosophical Ethics at the University of Lublin. So well known was the Philosophy Department at Lublin in European circles, especially those concerned with the debates concerning phenomenology and realism, that its work became known for its originality as “the Lublin School.” Sister Theresa’s collection of 22 of Wojtyla’s weightier essays is the fourth volume in the Peter Lang series from the Lublin School.

These 22 essays are arranged in three groups: nine on such different philosophical aspects of ethics as experience, will, reason, and act; eight on personalism, including both phenomenological and Thomistic analyses, carefully compared; and five on sexual ethics, marriage, and the family. These essays shed a clear and steady light on the main themes of many of the Pope’s encyclicals. They help to explain why those encyclicals display an authorial coherence, profundity, and originality, and why they possess an authority of voice distinguishable from the charism of papal authority — an authority based upon complete philosophical command of the materials in question.

Not many Americans, even among philosophers, have a firm grasp upon the intentions and the findings of the phenomenological school that grew up in Germany and Austria in the circles around Edward Husserl. Not many know, either, the work of Max Scheler, on whose ethical thought Wojtyla wrote his thesis (concluding that while Scheler’s thought could not be reconciled with Christian ethics in a direct fashion, indirectly it is of significant help in expressing certain key matters of ethical experience). For this reason, Crisis hopes to publish soon an introduction to phenomenology by Monsignor Robert Sokolowski, a frequent contributor to these pages, to help American readers get up to speed on a current of thought bound to be important as the twenty-first century begins. The dialogue between phenomenology and Thomistic realism has brought philosophy to the brink of escaping from subjectivism. At this time in the history of the 20th century, anything but realism is a dangerous illusion.

Indeed, the situation today recalls Poland in 1945, that first brief hopeful moment after the terrors of World War II. The historian of philosophy, Stefan Swiezawski, who brought Wojtyla to the Chair in Ethics at Lublin, describes the hunger for philosophy that erupted in Poland as soon as the war was over.

In 1945 I presented the first series of lectures in metaphysics at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. The course was held in one of the largest rooms of a new building at the university. It attracted such a massive crowd that students were forced to stand in the aisles, and some even overflowed out into the corridor. The experiences of the war, in their overwhelming realism, were too horrible to allow us still seriously to maintain a subjective or idealistic philosophy. Reality asserted itself so unequivocally that to question its objective character was absurd. On the other hand, the spiritual significance of the immensity of sufferings imposed itself so strongly that materialistic realism appeared to us all as too simplistic and paltry a hypothesis to explain the complex structure of the world and the processes taking place in it. And so we rejected idealism, as did the materialists, and we also began an unrelentless battle aimed at preventing materialism from becoming identified with realism, or idealism with spiritualism.

Swiezawski’s essay, “Karol Wojtyla at the Catholic University of Lublin,” included in Sister Theresa’s book, functions as a splendid introduction to the future Pope, to the man, to the philosopher. It offers a key to John Paul II’s highly distinctive and central emphasis on philosophical anthropology:

One other aspect of the spiritual condition of the Polish intelligentsia at that time is worthy of note. We knew with vivid clarity that all the evil that had assailed us in a dreadfully pure form, as well as all the good, which included incredible acts of heroism and sacrifice, had been the work of human beings. What then is a human being? What in the deepest sense constitutes the human person? What causes people at one time to resemble evil incarnate and to engage in acts of satanic brutality, and at another to exhibit superhuman powers of love and devotion? Quid est homo? Those of us schooled in philosophical contemplation realized that the theoretical justification of a realistic-objective or idealistic-subjective stance in our philosophy and worldview turned on our philosophical view of the human being. Metaphysics goes hand in hand with philosophical anthropology. This explains the key role played by the philosophy of the human being, a role that goes far beyond any psychological, phenomenological, or existential analysis of human actions and experiences.

Polish thought, then, went beyond existentialism (with its emphasis on the sharp taste of the immediate) and phenomenology (with its engagement with essences and its taste for feeling the presence of ideal forms). The pain Poles had experienced had not been merely subjective. The breakdown of pre-war structures unleashed absurdities too rude to be thought of as essences or ideal forms. Young Poles struggled to find philosophical terms and methods that would allow them to express what they had learned about the human person. They borrowed from wherever they could. They found medieval realism, in all its forgotten sophistication, more satisfying than the subjectivism of Hume and Kant — closer to their own experience, more eloquent, more supple and capable of more exact distinctions. They borrowed from every source they could, but systematically rather than eclectically. That was the achievement and the in part as yet unfinished intention of the Lublin School.

In future issues of Crisis, we will present selections from the philosophical work of Karol Wojtyla.

  • Michael Novak

    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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