Thomas J. Massaro
Image

To: The Honorable George W. Bush
President of the United States

Dear Mr. President:
We write to you after the difficult election of 2000 in the spirit of your invitation to all Americans to join you in working together on important issues. We are encouraged by your openness to the insights of people of faith. We write out of our special concern for those left behind by the prosperity of the past decade and for those whose fates are tied to the reformed welfare system. It is heartening to observe your commitment, as you said recently, to find common ground and build consensus to make America a beacon of opportunity for the twenty-first century.

We are Democrats and Catholics. We neither contributed to your campaign nor voted for you; one of us (Bane) was a Clinton appointee during his first term. Our reflections, however, are guided by the wisdom that Catholic social teaching brings to the topics of individual and collective responsibilities for the poor and the vulnerableinsights that defy easy political categorization. The values of our church’s social teaching do not fit neatly within any segment of the conventional American political spectrum. We would like to share some of these ideas with you and then make several policy suggestions.

The Social Teachings of the Church

We find the following two contributions of our church’s social teaching to be especially relevant to American social policy today, offering it guidance and directions for the future.

Consistent ethic of life. Everything we do as private individuals and as contributors to public policy and collective action should serve the supreme value of human life. As Catholics, we are guided by a profound vision of the inherent dignity of life from conception to natural death. Inspired by the leadership of Pope John Paul II and the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, we are committed to protecting life both before and after birth. No one is excluded from the ambit of this protection. Life cannot be forfeitednot by the circumstance of being born into the wrong family (hence our opposition to racism as well as to welfare policies that punish children for the mistakes of their parents), not even by criminal guilt (hence our opposition to capital punishment).

We desire that all children develop into healthy, productive adults who have the opportunity to grow to physical and spiritual maturity. Our commitments to lifelong marriage and intact families as the best environment for nurturing children made us pro-family long before the recent political squabbles over models of family life. We are convinced that material poverty is not the only deprivation that hinders full development, but that basic material security and true participation in society are necessary if no child is to be left behind. These principles lead us to identify several social priorities: to reduce high poverty rates, to make employment more secure, to counter the time pressures on families that separate parents from children and to address the stark racial and economic segregation confronting so many children.

In short, the Catholic tradition of respect for life leads us to conclusions that are pro-life, pro-family and pro-poor. Anyone guided by these principles soon finds himself or herself treading uneasily upon the platforms of the two major American political parties.

Subsidiarity and solidarity. Catholic social teaching offers this twinned pair of insights for social policy. Despite their awkward names, each makes an important contribution. Subsidiarity expresses the insight that the institutions closest to individuals should meet needs when they can: families, communities, churches, voluntary organizations, local governments, states. But this by no means precludes an important role for government, indeed even for the federal government, in undertaking projects impossible for any other level to address.

Catholic social teaching is wrongly accused of being needlessly statist, sometimes even socialist. Indeed, it is more confident than many other perspectives about the constructive role national governments may play in society, but its preference is still solidly for local and voluntary solutions to problems wherever appropriate. The guiding principle is that the various locuses of responsibilitynot only personal, but also family, community and governmentalmust work together to create favorable conditions for all people to thrive.

Solidarity captures the notion that we are all in this together. Catholic social teaching joins many other religious as well as secular groups in claiming that all members of society are responsible for one another and are obliged to shoulder common burdens and assist those in special need. What is perhaps distinctive about the Catholic vision of solidarity is its insistence on a special concern for the most vulnerable members of society, a priority expressed in the phrase preferential option for the poor. It is evidenced in a willingness to make serious sacrifices for less fortunate members of society, even if they are not of our own ethnic or class groupings. Such solidarity is grounded in a particularly rich social vision of the unity of all people, a commitment that is, unfortunately, not always protected in contemporary social policy.

Other items could be added to this bundle of values from Catholic social teaching. But even this modest list makes clear that our church offers an alternative to the usual way of proceeding in the American corridors of power. It advocates genuine partnership over self-interest, the virtue of hospitality over xenophobia (for example, in our troubled immigration policy) and concern for equity over raw efficiency when these values conflict. Voices inspired by Catholic social teaching will be enthusiastic about the potential role for churches and other faith-based organizations. They will be supportive of the efforts of local communities, but they are also convinced that fairness sometimes demands uniform national programs, national regulation, and national collection and distribution of resources.

Three Recommendations

Drawing from these themes, we offer the following suggestions for three important policy areas.

Families left behind. The first concerns those families left behind by the prosperity of the last decade. We all recognize that poverty rates are far from a perfect measure of deprivation or vulnerability. Nonetheless, with median family income at $40,800 in 1999, most Americans would probably agree that incomes below the poverty line (about $13,400 for a family of three) represent real hardship. When we survey the statistical record, we quickly note several disturbing disparities.

Median incomes for African-American ($27,900) and Hispanic ($30,700) households lag far behind non-Hispanic whites ($44,400), despite recent gains. While the overall poverty rate has declined to 11.8 percent of the population, 4.6 percent are still living in extreme poverty, with incomes under 50 percent of the official poverty line. The poverty rate among children is 16.3 percent; among children in families headed by women, the poverty rate is a shocking 41.9 percent. Clearly, despite an unprecedented period of prosperity, stubborn structures of injustice continue to perpetuate a disturbing income gap in America.

It is also clear that although unemployment rates are at record lows, and in most parts of the country job markets remain very tight, many families experience low wages and insecure employment. For example, among families with children, 21 percent were headed by an adult who worked part time or part year; the poverty rate for those families in 1999 was 28 percent. Families that do experience unemployment are increasingly unlikely to be covered by unemployment compensation; only about 30 percent of unemployed workers currently receive unemployment compensation. Especially vulnerable are workers who entered the labor market fromor as an alternative tothe welfare rolls and who often find themselves, for various reasons, in short-term or uncovered jobs.

Even if the current economic slowdown proves to be, as we all hope, both brief and mild, these facts ought to alert us to the need for two important policy initiatives. The first is some additional help for low-income working families, such as additional child care and health care subsidies, and some restructuring and expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. The expansion of the E.I.T.C. earnings supplement over the last decade has clearly been effective in helping to deliver on the promise that if you work, you shouldn’t be pooran aspiration that has widespread public support. Adjusting the E.I.T.C. to give higher benefits to larger families, and to provide a less sharp drop in benefits for those who increase their earnings, would make this effective program even better.

The second is a serious look at the unemployment insurance system. Part-time and temporary workers, as well as recent entrants into the labor force, are often not eligible for unemployment insurance when they lose their jobs. Nonetheless they are genuinely unemployed, willing and able to return to the work force when they can. The welfare system used to provide a safety net for many of these workers, but with the restructuring of that system, we need to look again at the unemployment system itself to provide temporary cash assistance. Working out the specifics will require some research and analysis; this ought to be a high priority for the new administration.

Families still on welfare. The second issue of great importance is welfare itself. The welfare reform efforts of 1996, combined with very tight labor markets, have led to dramatic reductions in the welfare roles. Many former welfare recipients or potential welfare recipients are now members of the labor force, though often in the low-wage, insecure labor market. For them, the most important welfare reform is support for working families, of the sort outlined above, plus continued efforts in child support enforcement when one parent is not in the home. For those who move in and out of the labor market, a reformed unemployment insurance system ought to provide support during periods of temporary unemployment, alleviating the need for them to use welfare payments for this purpose.

Millions are still on the welfare rolls, however, and many of the remaining welfare recipients experience multiple and serious barriers to work. A review of studies of welfare recipients suggests that as many as half of current recipients have health problems that keep them from working: mental impairments, physical disabilities, learning disabilities, low levels of cognitive skills and substance abuse problems. Others have very low levels of literacy and job skills; still others have disabled or chronically ill children who need continual care.

Some states are making serious efforts to provide for these families both income assistance and longer term help with their problems. But all states should be encouraged to work with these families, and they should certainly not be required to cut them off the welfare rolls with an arbitrary time limit. In order to do this, states require funding, as well as adjustment of the federal time limits, both of which should be priorities in reauthorization of the welfare law.

Racial minorities and immigrants. This is an area of particular concern. Not only did few members of minority groups vote for you, President Bush, but many blacks in Florida and elsewhere protested your electoral victory with allegations of voting irregularities and intimidation. We hope you will address this charged issue not merely with attempts to build support for your own popularity, but with sincere efforts to bring about meaningful changes to better the lives of all of our citizens, to quote the recent words of tribute to you by your cabinet appointee, Tommy Thompson.

Members of minority groups, along with new immigrants, are among the Americans most in need of special efforts to protect their rights and dignity and open up genuine opportunities. More is required than a few high-profile appointments of blacks and Hispanics to cabinet posts. It would be truly tragic, and an offense against the Catholic social teaching principles of solidarity and human dignity discussed above, if the cause of racial equality were stalled during the next four years. We recommend a continuation of President Clinton’s initiative on race in some form, so that concerns such as racial discrimination and profiling may be addressed through a continuing national dialogue. Similarly, new initiatives to increase the fairness of immigration policy, such as measures to reduce the backlog of legal cases that relegates many thousands of immigrants to detention centers, would contribute to social justice.

 

We are encouraged by the conciliatory tone you have maintained since the hotly contested election. But we want to see your efforts move beyond mere rhetoric into concrete actions that will improve the lives of all Americans, especially the poorest and most vulnerable. We hope that you will consider the principles and priorities outlined in Catholic social teaching as an important source of guidance for future policy directions. We are eager to help you find an approach to social policy that honors your pledge to be a compassionate conservative, while avoiding a descent into revisiting the stale and bitter ideological debates of the last two decades. We too share your desire for the United States to be led by a president who serves as a uniter, not a divider. We hope that American social policy will be an area that experiences healing, not further divisions, in the coming years.

Thomas Massaro, S.J., teaches social ethics at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology. Mary Jo Bane teaches public policy and management at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Comments

Kathy Thornton, R.S.M. | 1/22/2007 - 4:24pm
The article by Thomas J. Massaro, S.J., and Mary Jo Bane, “Compassion in Action: A Letter to President Bush on Social Policy” (3/12), was much needed. In recent weeks public dialogue has focused on across-the-board tax cuts and other proposals that do little to foster a just economic system in our country.

The electorate should impress upon President Bush and Congress the need for an economy that provides access to jobs and services that enable all people to support themselves and care for their families. We also need assurance that natural resources are protected for the universal common good in a sustainable and mutually beneficial way.

In short, we need an economic system that focuses on people before profits, a sustainable economy that addresses the needs of present and future generations. If people take up pen and paper now to demand this of their elected officials, we can all play a part in achieving this vision of economic justice.

Kathy Thornton, R.S.M. | 1/22/2007 - 4:24pm
The article by Thomas J. Massaro, S.J., and Mary Jo Bane, “Compassion in Action: A Letter to President Bush on Social Policy” (3/12), was much needed. In recent weeks public dialogue has focused on across-the-board tax cuts and other proposals that do little to foster a just economic system in our country.

The electorate should impress upon President Bush and Congress the need for an economy that provides access to jobs and services that enable all people to support themselves and care for their families. We also need assurance that natural resources are protected for the universal common good in a sustainable and mutually beneficial way.

In short, we need an economic system that focuses on people before profits, a sustainable economy that addresses the needs of present and future generations. If people take up pen and paper now to demand this of their elected officials, we can all play a part in achieving this vision of economic justice.