Issues for Catholic Voters (2012 edition) – Poverty
“…those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church which, since her origin and in spite of the failings of many of her members, has not ceased to work for their relief, defense, and liberation through numerous works of charity which remain indispensable always and everywhere” (Libertatis Conscientia, 68).
At a recent meeting of religious conservatives, a Catholic activist approached several Catholic politicians holding a Bible open to Matthew 25 containing Gospel admonitions to help the poor. The activist attempted to equate the obligatory nature of Church teaching on life and marriage with the issue of proposed cuts to the federal budget. This is the predictable strategy of left-wing Catholics to distract attention away from Catholic politicians who support abortion and gay marriage.
The “preferential option for the poor” challenges Catholics to make a special effort to help those in poverty. How this is translated into public policy is a matter for prudential judgment. Budgets are a compendium of these judgments by assigning tax revenue to programs to assist those in poverty.
It’s clear from other aspects of the Church’s social teaching that Catholics must be careful not to undermine any person’s right to self-determination and autonomy as has been witnessed in some forms of welfare assistance.
The principle of social justice combines the notion that persons are responsible for exercising their freedom to obtain the goods of life and that these goods are proportionate to their inherent dignity. But there are some who cannot obtain these goods without assistance. One of the most contentious issues in modern politics is the question of what and how much should be provided by the community or the state.
Catholic social teaching does not justify the growth of a federal welfare state. A wealthy state that provides for the less fortunate is to be preferred to the socialist state where everyone is equally poor. The goal of Catholic social teaching is to provide the conditions for persons to obtain the goods appropriate to the dignity of their existence.
One area in which the government can most appropriately weed out the roots of poverty is through a sound fiscal policy. At a minimum, the Church advocates regulated income levels and working conditions that promote self-respect and self-sufficiency: “The amount a worker receives must be sufficient, in proportion to available funds, to allow him and his family a standard of living consistent with human dignity” (Pacem in Terris, 20).
The federal government should also enact legislation that motivates the unemployed to move from the welfare lines to the workforce. We should not embrace policies that encourage the unemployed to become dependent on the government, thereby losing their incentive to become self-sufficient.
Those who are poor face the agonizing battle of spreading their meager income among the basic necessities, housing being the most expensive of all. Many who are poor literally have no home to call their own. They become dependent on the generosity of friends, relatives, charities, government programs, and the Catholic Church, which is the non-governmental leader in providing housing and shelter to the poor.
This assistance is certainly necessary in the short-term. But the more lasting solution is one that empowers people to provide their own security and stability. Unfortunately, a whole class of workers is unable to do this because they lack the necessary education and training.
The poor cannot advance in this technological age if they don’t acquire education. Unfortunately, public schools in low-income areas operate at lower standards than those in more affluent neighborhoods. Social justice requires that this inequality be overcome, whether through school vouchers, state-sponsored tutors, or other forms of training.
Social programs are not the only solution. More immediate and permanent solutions can be found by applying the principle of subsidiarity. Individuals and communities must meet the challenge and help those who want to work acquire the knowledge and skills needed to secure higher paying jobs.
First, however, there is a demoralizing condition within the country that must be overcome. The decline of the traditional two-parent family is the primary cause of poverty. As more people have delayed marriage and the trend of unmarried cohabitation has increased, the number of children born out of wedlock has grown. The rise of divorce has also contributed to the growth of single-parent households.
The Church has always stressed the importance of traditional family structures in protecting the welfare of children. However, this is not a situation that can be resolved with government intervention. Society itself, in the purest sense of solidarity and subsidiarity, must decide what type of culture it wants to promote and act accordingly.
- The preferential option for the poor requires that authorities first provide assistance to the poor and oppressed.
- The poor must have access to the education and job training necessary to compete in today’s job market.
- Strong families that remain intact keep their members from falling into poverty.
By Deal Hudson, president of Catholic Advocate