Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a two-part series. We asked two prominent members of Congress, both Catholics with famous names, to respond to Pope Francis’ repeated calls to empower the poor. The second response, by Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III, Democrat of Massachusetts, is online and will appear in print on Oct. 20.
Some years before he became Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was talking with a friend about serving the poor. When helping people in need, he said, his first concern was material: “Are you hungry? Here, here is something to eat.” But poverty isn’t just a form of deprivation; it’s also a form of isolation. People always need to eat, and often they need something more, like a teacher or a job. In other words, they need other people. So “the poor must not be perpetually marginalized,” the cardinal warned. Instead, “we [must] integrate them into our community.”
I could not agree more. There is a lot of untapped potential in this country; I have seen it firsthand. In the past two years, I have traveled to 10 different communities that are fighting poverty every day, from a homeless shelter in Denver to a rehab center in San Antonio. Every person I have met has had a different story. But every story they have told has had the same message: Once people find a niche and put down roots, they draw strength from the people around them and they grow. So to expand opportunity in this country, we have to bring the poor back into our communities. And the safety net can serve as the missing link by helping people find work.
Market and Government
Before we can repair the safety net, we have to repair the thinking behind it. In all these debates over poverty, people tend to think there are two competing principles at work: the market and the government. In other words, people think you have to pin all your hopes on either private charity or public assistance. That is a false choice—because both the market and the government are tools. We use them for our own purposes. And we should make them work together to enhance human dignity. So the question is not whether we should use the market or the government; it is how to use them both. And one of my guides is Catholic social teaching. Instead of two competing principles, I rely on two complementary principles: solidarity and subsidiarity.
Solidarity is a shared commitment to the common good. It is the belief that we are all in this together, so we should look out for each other, both in our private lives and in our public policy. As St. Paul once wrote, “If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy” (1 Cor 12:26). Our goal, then, is to foster a healthy economy, one that promotes the most talented and protects the most vulnerable. This is what we mean by a preferential option for the poor. Just as a doctor heals a wound to help the whole body, we take care of people in need because the whole country will benefit.
Subsidiarity, meanwhile, is a prudent deference to the people closest to the problem. Whenever there is hardship—whether it is unemployment, addiction or illness—we first look to the people on the ground to solve it because they know their communities best. They know the simple but vital facts: Who is looking for a job? Who is hiring? What skills are in demand? And only when the community is unable to solve the problem on its own do we ask the government to step in. And even then, government must work with the people in the community, not against them.
Every public policy should strike a balance between these two principles. Too much solidarity would blind us to our different needs. And too much subsidiarity would blind us to our shared goals. These principles are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are mutually reinforcing. If solidarity is the team spirit, then subsidiarity is the game plan. We have to remember that though each part of our country looks out for the whole, each part makes a different contribution to the whole. As St. Paul wrote, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?” (1 Cor 12:17).
Confronting ‘Deep’ Poverty
Good Catholics can disagree over how to strike that balance, and we do. But in the fight against poverty, I think we can all agree that we can do better. Each year, the federal government spends almost $800 billion on at least 92 different programs to help people in need. And yet the poverty rate is the highest in a generation. Over the last three years, deep poverty has been the highest on record. The fact is, too many families are living paycheck to paycheck. They are working harder and harder to get ahead, and yet they are falling further and further behind.
And we have to understand why. Today, technology is changing constantly—and with it the global economy. But the rest of our society has not kept up. Everything from our education system to our safety net still works according to bureaucratic formulas set in the 20th century. So many of our people do not have the skills they need to compete in the 21st century. They cannot find work, and as a result, they cannot take part.
And because the federal government is so disorganized and dysfunctional, Washington is in many ways deepening the divide: It is not helping people get back into the workforce; in fact, it is effectively encouraging them to stay out. Many federal programs are means-tested, so as families earn more money, they get less aid. Any system that concentrates aid on the most vulnerable will face this tension. But the current system exacerbates it by layering on program after program without ensuring any coordination among them.
Take an example: a single mom with one child. Imagine she works full-time year-round for $7.25 an hour (or $15,080 a year). To give you some perspective, she is making just below the poverty line for a family of two, which was $15,730 in 2014. Now imagine she is offered a raise to $10.35 an hour (or $21,528 a year). If she accepts, much of her federal aid will instantly disappear. At this point, thanks to higher taxes and lower benefits, she will effectively keep only 10 cents of every extra dollar she earns. So the federal government is effectively discouraging her from getting ahead.
This is a crucial flaw in the safety net—one that demands correction. “There is no worse dispossession,” Cardinal Bergoglio himself said years ago, “than not being able to earn one’s own bread, than being denied the dignity of work.” The status quo does not respect the dignity of work, and that is why it is unacceptable.
What we need to do is coordinate aid to families in need. We need to get the public and private sector pulling in the same direction, so we can smooth the transition from assistance to success. Each person’s needs fit into a coherent whole: a career. And each person fits into a coherent whole: a community. So if the public and private sector work together, we can offer a more personalized, customized form of aid—one that recognizes both a person’s needs and their strengths.
I do not have all the answers. Nobody does. But I do think we can build a safety net that embraces both the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. I would begin by starting a pilot program, which I would call the Opportunity Grant. It would consolidate up to 11 federal programs into one stream of funding to participating states. The idea would be to let states try different ways of providing aid and then to test the results—in other words, more flexibility in exchange for more accountability. Participation would be voluntary; no state would have to join. And we would not expand the program until we had tested a number of different approaches and gathered all the evidence.
Here is how it would work. Each state that wanted to participate would submit a plan to the federal government. That plan would lay out in detail the state’s proposed alternative. If everything passed muster, the federal government would give the green light. And the state would get more flexibility to combine programs such as food stamps, housing subsidies, child-care assistance and cash welfare.
The federal government would grant approval on four conditions. First, the state would have to spend all the funding on people in need; it could not use that money on other priorities like roads or bridges. Second, the state would have to maintain work requirements and time limits for every able-bodied recipient—just as there are for cash welfare today. Third, the state would have to offer at least two service providers. The state welfare agency could not be the only game in town. And fourth, the state would have to measure progress through a neutral third party.
If approved, the state could use that money to expand state programs and to partner with local service providers. So families in need would have a choice. There would not just be a state agency or a federal agency. Instead, they could choose among non-profits like Catholic Charities USA, for-profits like America Works or even community groups unique to their neighborhood. And instead of offering a bunch of different benefits, these groups could offer a more holistic form of aid through case management.
Earlier this year, I saw the benefits of case management in action when I met a woman at Catholic Charities in Racine, Wis. When she first came to Catholic Charities, she was homeless and unemployed. So she sat down with a caseworker and put together a life plan. With the caseworker’s help, she and her fiancé each found work, and now she is earning her degree in health management. The point is, with someone to coordinate her aid, she did not just find a job; she started a career.
The woman told me one of the most important things her caseworker did was give her advice. She had received a number of federal benefits before, but she never knew how to manage them all. With the case manager’s help, she learned how to write a budget and stick to it. Catholic Charities gave her greater control over her life, and now she is getting her life back on track.
Under the Opportunity Grant, states could partner with a number of local service providers, so we could have more such success stories. I would not force states to use case management. I mean only to highlight one promising model. States would have to maintain work requirements and time limits, but they would be free to use whatever methods they preferred as long as they tested the results. Not everyone would need case management, and states would have the flexibility to provide different types of aid for people in different circumstances.
And all this time, a neutral third party would keep tabs on each provider and its success rate. This third party would keep track of key metrics: How many people are finding jobs? How many people are getting off assistance? How many people are moving out of poverty? Any provider who came up short could no longer participate. And at the end of the program, we would pool the results and go from there.
So I would reconceive the federal government’s role. No longer would it try to supplant our local communities. Instead it would try to support them. It would work hand in hand with community groups like Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services and others. In my view, the federal government would be the rearguard; it would protect the supply lines. But the people in our communities would be the vanguard; they would fight poverty on the front lines. They would lead this effort, and Washington would follow their lead.
Under my proposal, people could use federal aid to get from where they are to where they want to be: a new job, a new neighborhood, a new life. By channeling the market forces of choice and competition, government could help get people back in the hustle and bustle of life.
In short, we would have a stronger, more stable safety net, based on the twin principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. By drawing more attention to people in need, we would maintain the principle of solidarity. And we would revive the principle of subsidiarity by harnessing the knowledge of our local communities.
I understand that not everybody, nor every Catholic, will agree with my proposal. But at the very least, I hope to start a conversation. I will be the first to acknowledge there is plenty of room for debate. But I hope we all recognize, as Pope Francis has said, we have to make room for families in need. We have to welcome them back into our communities—because that is where they belong, and that is where they can take root and flourish.