Welfare reform is in. Or at least discussions of it are in. The Reagan administration and Congress, Republicans and Democrats, all seem to be trying to outdo one other in putting forth proposals to change fundamentally the current welfare programs. In addition, books such as Charles Murray’s Losing Ground and Lawrence Mead’s Beyond Entitlement do not merely call for minor reforms that leave the present welfare system intact. Instead, they vigorously critique existing policies and go to the heart of the assumptions that underlie them.
Because the proposals and questions being raised are concerned with basic questions of purpose and direction, a host of essentially ethical or religious beliefs are constantly simmering just below the surface of today’s debate. In fact, there is much that is encouraging for the Christian.
The biblical values of work and family (even when not acknowledged as biblical values) are frequently supported. Lawrence Mead writes, “For recipients, work must be viewed, not as an expression of self-interest, but as an obligation owed to society.” Mead argues that when the poor accept governmental aid, they incur certain corresponding obligations to society, primarily the obligation to work.
Another biblical value supported by many recent studies is the family. Writers as disparate as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Charles Murray criticize current welfare policies for their claimed negative impact on the traditional family.
Moynihan, Murray, and others assume that stable two-parent families are good, while illegitimacy (especially teenage illegitimacy) is bad. The thrust of current scholarship and journalism is simply to document the increasing incidence of the latter, especially among blacks, and to assess the extent to which the welfare system is to blame.
A second encouragement to Christians is a rejection of the relativism that was in vogue in the late sixties and early seventies. Nicholas Lemann, for example, disapprovingly quotes sociologist Andrew Billingsley’s 1968 assertion that “all the major institutions of society should abandon the single standard of excellence based on white European cultural norms.”
The beliefs underlying such an attitude are that the cultural norms for such practices as illegitimate births, the work ethic, and punctuality do not possess a moral authority. They are merely reflections of a culture’s historical growth and development, and one culture’s values cannot be judged superior to another’s. So, in the sixties and seventies, attempts to change such attitudes and behaviors were seen as being improper at best, and, when directed by a white middle class towards a black poverty class, as arrogant and genocidal.
Anyone reading the leading writers on welfare reform today immediately senses those days are past. Unstable or nonexistent families, premarital sex among the very young, poor work habits, drugs, low-quality schools, and more are explicitly or implicitly condemned. Most significant, they are condemned on the basis of contrary values that are presumed to have an inherent validity.
Mickey Kaus, for example, writes in the New Republic: “Right and left now recognize that neither robust economic growth nor massive government transfer payments can by themselves transform a ‘community’ where 90 percent of the children are born into fatherless families, where the work ethic has evaporated and the entrepreneurial drive is channeled into gangs and drug-pushing.” In the same vein, Mead criticizes “the liberal impulse to avoid all ‘value judgments’ about behavior.”
Mead and others then move from asserting the validity of certain cultural values to suggesting that welfare policies should be molded to encourage these values. This can be seen when Mead argues for what he terms the “civic conservative” position, which would enforce certain social obligations on those receiving welfare benefits. These social obligations are ones that most of society voluntarily accepts, but, he claims, many of the poor do not, to their own and society’s harm.
Thus, civic conservatives would make “a limited moral judgment, confined to standards that were essential to the poor and in some sense common to the public, hence not arbitrary.” Foremost among these is the value of working to support one’s family.
Blaming The Victim?
A third encouraging trend for Christians is an emphasis on certain beliefs concerning human nature. The welfare writers of the late sixties and early seventies tended to take a deterministic view of human beings, seeing them as products of the external forces acting upon them. This position was popularized in the phrase “blaming the victim.”
It is important to note that underlying this position are several basic value judgments concerning human beings and society. It is in tension with the biblical teaching of persons as morally responsible beings who make real choices that carry practical and moral consequences.
It is based on a deterministic, behavioristic model of society and human behavior. Since the social pathologies observed among many of the poor are not their fault, but the fault of society, the solution is to change the societal forces. Society should remove the barriers that are assumed to be holding back the poor, and the pathologies will dry up. Poverty itself will disappear.
Most of today’s writers on welfare reform have at least partially abandoned this model and—while not ignoring the role played by environmental influences—are reemphasizing the importance of the poor’s own internal resources. Lemann writes: “Of the millions of black Americans who have risen from poverty to the middle class since the mid-sixties, virtually all have done so by embracing bourgeois values and leaving the ghetto.” Lemann goes on to argue that such attitudes must be internalized by the poor underclass, and the only way for this to happen is through integration—that is, through exposing the underclass to the rest of society.
Such a position still has a strong emphasis on environmental influences since it argues that a changed environment leads to changed attitudes. But it does not ignore internalized attitudes and values, as earlier theories did, and assume that only conditions external to the poor were relevant to their escaping poverty.
The Necessity Of Religion
A. James Reichley has persuasively argued that a free, democratic, and “republican government depends for its health on values that over the not-so-long run must come from religion.” He believes that religion’s teachings concerning the moral worth of each human being and the legitimizing of social authority by a “transcendent moral law” are essential preconditions to a stable democracy.
An argument parallel to the one Reichley makes can be made in reference to public welfare policies. It rests upon the position that a successful welfare policy would offer a continuing, adequate level of help to those physically, mentally, or emotionally unable to be economically self-supporting, and would enable large numbers of the able-bodied poor to become economically self-supporting.
If this is the definition of a successful welfare policy, two qualities are needed among the public. First, those who are already economically self-supporting need to have enough compassion that they are willing to support public policies that use some of their wealth to aid the poor. Both history and an understanding of human nature indicate such compassion is not easy to achieve.
Second, those who are poor must have certain internalized attitudes that will enable them to take advantage of whatever opportunities to gain economic self-sufficiency the public policies offer.
Public programs can give people money, but by themselves they cannot make people self-supporting. Public policies can open the door; the poor themselves are the only ones who can walk through it. And let no one minimize the difficulty of walking through that door. The initial rewards of doing so are often meager, and much in the culture of the poor militates against it.
In short, the internalized commitments both the nonpoor and poor need in order to reform welfare successfully are essential on the one hand, and quite difficult on the other. For poverty to be conquered, both the nonpoor who must pay the bill and the poor who must take advantage of opportunities, need to overcome deep-rooted attitudes and social inertia.
Only religion has the strength necessary to overcome these obstacles. Just as Reichley argues that self-interest, authoritarianism, and secular humanism do not have the strength to provide the basis for a democratic society, so I would argue they do not have the strength to provide the value framework for a successful welfare program.
Christian Compassion And Welfare
If the dynamics of religion generally are essential to successful welfare reform, a Christian ethic in particular has three key features that indicate it has the potential for playing an essential role in directing and energizing key elements in needed welfare reform.
First, it has a strong emphasis on social justice and compassion for the needy. The Old Testament prophets reserved their most bitter words of denunciation for those who failed to “seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Isa. 1:17). Jesus Christ promised a punishment of eternal fire for those who failed to clothe the naked and feed the hungry (see Matt. 25:31–46).
Second, Christianity has a strong emphasis on the mutual responsibilities of husbands and wives, the duty of work to support one’s self and one’s dependents, and the obligations of those in positions of authority. (See Eph. 5:21–33; 2 Thess. 3:6–14; 1 Peter 5:1–5; and Rom. 13:6–7.)
All of these are values that are crucial to strong social structures.
Third, underlying and energizing these first two features of a Christian ethic is a very strong sense of personal responsibility. The norms of the first two features mentioned above are not theoretical or abstract points, but are personal, guiding, everyday obligations to the Christian
There are large numbers of individuals and families receiving public welfare aid today who have a very low potential for ever becoming economically self-supporting due to severe physical, emotional, or mental limitations. These will require continuing help from society, help that a biblical ethic of caring and compassion for the poor would mandate.
Even those who have the potential to become self-supporting often require education and training, drug rehabilitation, day care for their children, transportation, and other such help. Again, governmental or private institutions are needed; so is a strong sense of caring and compassion.
It is exactly this sense of caring and compassion towards the “fatherless and widows” that a Christian ethic teaches. But Christianity, as we just saw, does not stop here. It also insists on the very sort of responsibility needed by the poor if they are to take advantage of whatever opportunities can be created by reform efforts.
This does not mean public policy either can or should try to impose a Christian ethic where none exists. Yet reality suggests that to a significant degree welfare reform’s chances of success rest upon the existence of such an ethic. Therefore, those chances increase to the extent it does not hinder or run counter to, but seeks to work with and encourage, such an ethic.
Given this perspective, what are the specific public policies that will lead to a successful welfare reform program?
The first is to encourage the formation (or maintenance) of institutions that make use of or foster basic Christian ethical norms. The institution that serves as the clearest example of what I have in mind here is the inner-city parochial school. Success stories of nonpublic, usually Catholic, inner-city schools abound—stories of such schools imposing order, discipline, involvement of families, and other values.
Additional private and public social agencies emphasizing self-help, discipline, and other such values also need to be encouraged and supported. One thinks of homes for teenage mothers, drug rehabilitation efforts, and neighborhood associations.
Second, for those who are physically and emotionally able, work must be emphasized in the place of, or as a condition of, financial assistance. Work is the way out of poverty; work as a social obligation needs to be required. And it should be required not simply for pragmatic reasons, but as a value to be lived.
As work is emphasized, the sense of caring and compassion among the population that must pay for the antipoverty policies increases. American society tends to support helping those who seek to help themselves, since that type of help is fully in keeping with its strong work ethic. A sense of compassion or caring that the government seeks to use to support programs aimed simply at continuing fiscal assistance—“the dole”—puts the Christian ethic of compassion and the Christian ethic of work on a collision course. Replacing financial grant programs with work, or weaving work fully into grant programs, is the way to use our society’s Christian values to support a strong antipoverty program.
Living It Out
I close by noting that what is suggested here leaves open the perennial question of how large a role government should play in society’s antipoverty efforts. I suspect there is no one right answer. As churches and church-related agencies play a more active role, the role of government can decrease, and vice versa. This is largely a question of tactics, not principle. The important point is the presence of the sense of caring and compassion our Lord commands, a sense of caring and compassion that is lived out in the world actively, incessantly, lovingly, effectively. That is more important than the private or governmental form in which it is expressed.
Stephen V. Monsma is currently director of the office of quality review, the Michigan Department of Social Services. He has served in both the Michigan State House and Senate, and as professor of political science at Calvin College. His books include Pursuing Justice in a Sinful World (Eerdmans, 1984).
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more