God and the Welfare State

God and the Welfare State March 14, 2011

This is the title of a short and fascinating book written by Lew Daly as few years back as a criticism of the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative. Daly supports the faith-based initiative insofar as it allows a role for religious and other mediating institutions between the state and the person. This is consistent with subsidiarity and promotes the dignity of the individual. But Daly parts company with the American approach when it comes to actually paying for the welfare state. The American approach places a high premium on private charity. As Bush put it, the persistence of poverty is “more to do with troubled lives than a troubled economy”, and it can be solved solely by religious groups.

What is missing is the structural or societal roots of poverty. As Daly puts it, “poverty is created and perpetuated in defiance of God’s justice”. He discusses the covenants of the Old Law, arguing that the theological basis of the Jubilee provisions was that “God was the land’s only true owner”. A consistent objective of the old covenant was to ensure basic sustenance for all and to avoid the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few, which would lead to deprivation and servitude. Oppression of the poor was seen as evidence of covenental failure. And so we see Isaiah and Amos castigating those who make unjust laws to deprive the poor of their rights and the oppressed of justice. We see Micah railing against the wealthy who come up with new forms of legalized thievery, new ways to defraud the ordinary person (sound familiar?). And we all know what Jesus had to say about the poor and the least among us. Like the prophets before him, Jesus was particularly harsh toward those who hoard God’s fruits and yet demand piety from everyone else.

The basic insight, as Daly puts it, is that “direct care for the poor is required by Judeo-Christian faith”. Christians cannot ignore and cannot defend the growing gaps between rich and poor and the domination by the wealthy of the political system. And so the Bush administration’s commitment to religious autonomy contrasts in the social sphere starkly with its economic policies geared to benefit the richest. Grace and nature cannot be split into two distinct spheres. Faith is not private. Charity cannot be used to ignore the duties of society toward the poor.

So what is the solution? One idea is the social democratic model, with a large and dominant welfare state. This can work well, but it can also lead to a loss of human dignity by veering too far from solidarity. If the American system is all subsidiarity without solidarity, neither do we want a cold and faceless system of solidarity without subsidiarity. One answer is the Christian Democratic model with welfare states constructed around the principle of subsidiarity – as seen in places like Germany and the Netherlands. This is a welfare system that keeps both the state and the market in their place. In the Netherlands, the system of “pillarization” sees citizens being served from cradle to grave by s single confessional pillar. It is a welfare system funded by the state, but managed by subsidiary mediating institutions in a fully autonomous manner. The German approach is based clearly on Catholic notions of subsidiarity, with a neo-corporatist system dominated by six large umbrella organizations, or “free welfare associations” (the largest two are religious, Catholic and Protestant). These bodies are legally independent in the “targeting and execution of their functions”. It is a privately governed, but publicly financed, welfare arrangement.

The Christian Democratic vision recognizes that charity is not enough, and that charity must be backed up by a comprehensive system of social transfers. The role of the state is limited, and yet the common good of society, not the liberty of the individual, is the starting point. And it works pretty well. The United States spends 40 percent less on social spending than Christian or social democracies, and poverty and inequality rates are dramatically higher. A well-functioning welfare state should be able to cushion market outcomes, in part by reducing “post-government” poverty (after accounting for transfers and taxes). And yet the overall poverty reduction in the United States from the pre-government to the post-government stage is only about 20 percent. In Germany, it is 70 percent, and in the Netherlands, 90 percent. Of course, outcomes like this don’t come cheap.

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  • SB

    poverty is created and perpetuated in defiance of God’s justice

    Maybe, but the more obvious conclusion from looking at all of human history is that poverty (or what we privileged Americans think of as poverty) is the normal condition created by God.

  • RShapiro

    Poverty in America is not caused by “injustice”. It is caused by bad habits such as drug and alcohol abuse, out-of-wedlock births, poor money managment (such as buying lottery tickets), failure to demand educational achievement from children, and all of the other character defects that lead people to lead slovenly lives. None of this can be acknowledged, of course, because God is said to demand nothing other than mindless compassion from us. But “wealth transfers” i.e. taking from those who work and giving to those who don’t, will not be effective. It will simply allow people to continue to indulge their worst instincts, while discouraging the virtues of diligence and thrift. How allowing dysfunctional people to remain totally dependent on government support enhances their dignity is an aspect of Catholic social teaching I have never understood.

    • That’s a very Calvinist worldview.

      • RShapiro

        I understand that yelling “Calvinist” is considered by a certain kind of Catholic to be the ultimate insult. But it was not Calvin who drew up The Seven Deadly Sins, the finest anti-poverty program ever devised by man, and one totally dependent on personal conduct.

        • I didn’t know the seven deadly sins were the reasons for poverty — especially since one of them is avarice; oh, and who was it that put together the list (originally it was eight)? Monks. They weren’t putting the list together as an anti-poverty program. Far from it.


          • RShapiro

            Really? You didn’t know that the lack of a solid work ethic (sloth), physical appetites out of control (gluttony), a lack of emotional stability (anger), and an inability to humbly acknowledge one own’s responsibility for one’s predicament (pride) were substantial causes of poverty?

          • Really. Tell that to poor around the world, who find themselves poor from birth, with no food to eat, and yet work hard just to survive while they see the rich man down the street, in their luxury cars, doing no work, growing fat, boastful of how great their place is in life, while they have people work for them.

            Tell that to Lazarus.

          • brettsalkeld

            Substantial perhaps. But sufficient?

      • SB

        No it’s not at all. Calvinism (if applied to poverty) would say that people are poor because God chose for them to be poor, and that nothing they do could make any difference. What RShapiro said is the exact opposite of Calvinism.

      • Blackadder

        Oh, snap!

    • brettsalkeld

      Does this apply only in America, or is it also the reason that, for instance, African nations are so poor?

      • Blackadder

        Does this apply only in America, or is it also the reason that, for instance, African nations are so poor?

        I would say only in America (or, rather, only in the developed world).

        The reason I say that is that if you take a guy in Africa and bring him to the United States, his economic prospects improve by a couple orders of magnitude. I don’t think that’s because he has left his bad habits at the border.

        • brettsalkeld

          So, why are those nations poor. Social factors? Historical factors?

          If so, do those things stop applying to humanity when the American border is traversed?

          Reserves for aboriginal people here in Canada have 3rd world conditions. How does that fit in here?

          • Blackadder


            It’s a complicated question, but the main factor seems to be having the right institutional framework (rule of law, protection of property rights, etc.)

    • RShapiro – I nominate that as the most disgusting comment ever made at Vox Nova.

      Blaming people on welfare for their poverty is not only ignorant and arrogant, it is actually morally depraved.

      You’re assuming, first of all, that middle-class people are more virtuous than the poor (or else, why are they doing better?) This has not been my experience. My experience is that poverty means the consequences of any misbehavior become much MORE (not less) severe. Look at America’s prison population. How many of those inmates grew up poor? How many grew up middle-class and above?

      I actually can speak from direct personal experience, since I grew up in both a poor area (the Iron Triangle in Richmond, California) and a middle-class area (my family moved when I was 14 to Benicia, California, which is as close as Northern California gets to having a “Mayberry, RFD” of its own.)

      In my high school class in Benicia, there were kids – a whole lot of them – that dealt drugs. No, not just pot, but coke, barbiturates, amphetamines – the “hard stuff”.

      The only difference between them and Richmond kids was that the suburban kids dealt out of suburban houses bought by people who had political power, so the consequences for them getting caught were usually dad making a show of giving them a lecture, the drugs being flushed down the toilet, and being grounded for two weeks. All because they were “good” kids, not poor and darker-skinned.

      The Richmond kids were subject to massive raids by the cops, being hauled away in handcuffs, and then being sentenced to lengthy prison terms at Fouts Springs youth prison (or, if they were older than 16, Folsom prison.)

      Poor people, in a billion little ways, are judged and dealt with WAY more harshly for practically every offense than middle class folks are.

      In my experience, the only difference between poor people and middle class people is miles, money and luck. No moral difference – if anything, I found, amid the poverty and violence, more virtue, more godliness, more agape love, in Richmond than anywhere else I’ve lived. If you knew any of the people I grew up with – if you knew the truth of their lives, and what they have endured and even achieved, despite their poverty – then you would be begging their forgiveness for the calumny you’ve posted here.

      How dare you judge those you have no understanding of.

      • RShapiro

        Can the self-righteousness. If you are arguing that those who are born poor, or come here poor, are doomed to poverty, then it is you who does not know what goes on in this country. And when you tell the poor kids of Richmond not to try because The Man is out to get them, you doom them and their kids to endless cycles of poverty. But your heart is pure, and that is all that matters.

        • You preach cruelty, and dress it up as compassion. It only serves to soothe the seared consciences of those who wallow in greed.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Do you actually know any poor people? You know, a single mom working two minimum wage jobs without health care, an ex-husband who won’t pay child support, living in a roach-infested apartment in a bad neighborhood because its all she can afford? Her kids aren’t getting an education (even though she knows this is their chance) because the neighborhood school sucks, she can’t understand the paperwork for the school choice program (which has a 100 student waiting list), and she can’t make it to the workshop because its downtown and she doesn’t have a car. As my friends at the local Catholic Worker House say (and they live and work with people just like this) “poor people are some of the hardest working people we know. They work real hard just to stay alive.”

    • So you don’t think our Church doctrine covers the massive financial inequity in this country? Do you think our doctrine approves of it? You think it calls for a few hundred men to control almost half of the wealth?

      Funny, I thought avarice was a sin, and that to keep more than you need was a sin. Perhaps you can clarify your position on this.

  • Don’t play games. You know as well as I do that Calvinism is the dominant strand in American Protestantism, going all the way back to Withrop and Whitefield (who famously attacked Wesley’s Arminian sympathies).

    You know as well as I do that while the first settlers might have taken seriously the traditional Calvinist pessimism regarding the certainly of salvation, it did not take long for this to be overshadowed by far more certainty about the ability to discern one’s personal salvation, combined with the equation of individual and national election.

    You know as well as I do that, underpinned by this theology, and mixed with a little Enlightenment-era liberalism, individual success became synonymous with individual virtue.

    You know as well as I do that under this derivative Calvinism (for it does indeed deviate from what Calvin wrote and taught), the poor are thought to suffer as a manifestation of God’s justice. If they were less sinful or worked harder or took better care of themselves, they wouldn’t be in their present condition. They may receive charity from someone religiously inclined to give them alms, but they are not entitled in justice to a share of what others have earned.

    And you know as well as I do that this is far removed from a Catholic anthropology, especially with the development of Catholic social teaching in the wake of Rerum Novarum.

    • SB

      You know as well as I do that the term “Calvinism” doesn’t mean its exact opposite. Can’t you find another term of disagreement? Not everything that is wrong is Calvinist, after all.

  • Blackadder

    One way to test whether it is bad habits or societal structures that explain poverty would be for rich and poor to trade places. You take a bunch of middle class people, strip them of their wealth and social connections, and put them back into society at the bottom. Likewise, you give poor people a big pile of cash, and then step back and see what happens. If societal structures are what matters, then the ex-rich should end up doing about as badly as the poor do currently, while the ex-poor end up as successful as the rich people they replace. On the other hand, if what matters is personal habits, then we would expect the people with good habits to thrive even if they had to start again from scratch, whereas those with bad habits would flounder even if they were given large amounts of material goods.

    An actual experiment of this sort is unlikely to ever happen. But there is a rough approximation of the experiment that occurs already. Many immigrants come to this country lacking any wealth or social connections. Yet those who lack the bad habits mentioned by RShapiro tend to escape poverty fairly quickly. On the other hand, if you look what happens to lottery winners, it turns out that just giving people money doesn’t affect their long term standard of living very much.

    Let me end by making a prediction. I predict that MM will not simply respond to this comment by calling me a Calvinist, but will try to grapple with the argument and evidence I’ve presented. I make this prediction because I think that MM is a smart guy who genuinely cares about improving the lives of the poor, and deep down he knows that if you don’t correctly identify the causes and sources of poverty any attempt you make to fight it is liable to be fruitless.

    • brettsalkeld

      I think it might be a bit more complicated than that. When you get people to switch places are you going to take away all the intangible advantages that the people on the top had before? Can you sub in a fatherless childhood, or a school that didn’t know how to cope with your learning disability?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      The problem with the immigrant argument is, similar to what Brett noted, is that it ignores social capital. Many immigrants come here dirt poor, but have a lot of social capital they can draw on, even if they end up at the bottom of the economic food chain. I am thinking in particular of a family of vietnamese immigrants I knew in Oakland. They lived in a pretty run down neighborhood, and dad worked in the laundry at a local hospital—better than minimum wage, but not by a lot. But back in Vietnam he and his wife had both been middle-class professionals, and this paid off in their ability not get themselves out of the economic margins but to make it possible for their kids to go to college and succeed.

      On the flip side, a lot of immigrants come here and work hard and never manage to pull themselves up, remaining mired in poverty. The movie El Norte captures this perfectly.

    • Blackadder

      Dave and Brett,

      I think you guys are making RShapiro’s argument for him. Are not things like poor money management skills a matter of social capital? Are not out of wedlock births and fatherless childhoods connected events? Perhaps your problem is less with the substance of RShapiro’s remarks than with their tone. Or have I misunderstood you?

      • brettsalkeld

        My reading of RShapiro has them pretty unconnected. I thought I was the one pointing out the connections. Of course out of wedlock births are connected with fatherless childhoods, but that connection is not unidirectional.

        If you want to make the point that poverty has social and personal causes, I’m all ears. That isn’t what I’m picking up from RShapiro. Now whether social or personal causes predominate is going to vary from situation to situation, but to act as if you can just tell people to buck-up and that’s going to fix poverty is shortsighted to say the least.

        As Maurin said, we need to work for a system that makes it easier to be good.

        This whole debate is frankly shocking to me. It is bizarre to see two poles suggesting that poverty has either personal or social causes. Everyone knows (or should) that hard work and upright living is not enough to get people out of poverty. And everyone knows (or should) that all the government intervention in the world won’t help people if it doesn’t also help them to take ownership of their own situation. It is painfully obvious that a two-pronged attack is needed. As long as we are more interested in scoring political points than dealing with reality poverty will continue, no matter which half of this stupid dichotomy wins the next election.

        • Blackadder


          I think it’s a matter of proportion and degree. In the United States, then percentage of people who have a full time job who are in poverty is less than 2%. The differences in poverty between people who are married vs. single vs. single with kids is also huge.

          The fact that poverty in the U.S. is largely a result of behavioral factors doesn’t mean we should just ignore it. Lung cancer is also largely caused by behavioral factors, yet we don’t treat this as grounds for indifference. However, identifying the sources and causes of poverty is important in determining how to respond. If you want to reduce lung cancer, you have to start by recognizing that in most cases lung cancer is a result of people making bad choices.

    • Kyle R. Cupp

      Methinks there’s a relationship between societal structures and the formation of habits. Putting someone with habits related to the spending, saving, and investing of money into the position of poverty still leaves him or her with skills learned by once having wealth. The poor person, suddenly put into the position of wealth, has never had the opportunity to learn habits related to having expendable money. In other words, in addressing the causes of poverty, we can’t look at structures and habits as an either/or, but rather approach them as a relationship.

  • Everyone knows that people are poor because they are cursed by God. God doesn’t love the poor. That’s why the U.S. of A is God’s country.

  • Here we are arguing about whether poor folks are poor because they aren’t virtuous enough, but the Gospels suggest that wealthy folks are wealthy because they aren’t virtuous enough. Also, the Gospels suggest that wealthy folks are probably going to hell unless they become poor.

    Just some food for thought…

    • brettsalkeld


      Not to mention the group of non-virtuous wealthy recently exposed, though not addressed, after the economic meltdown.

  • poverty is created and perpetuated in defiance of God’s justice

    You have a point. In Genesis Chapter 3 Adam and Eve rejected God’s Justice. But since then poverty has been the default economic condition of mankind. The fruit of that Tree is rather bitter.

    But since then asking what is the proximate cause of poverty has been a non-sequiter. Poverty is the default.

    Until about 1600-1700 no society was able to have more than 10% of it’s population out of poverty, usually requiring slaves to produce enough so some of the rulers would not live in poverty. Since then the number out of poverty has gradually increased, starting in a small coner of NW Europe. An increasing property that did not require slaves to exist. The real question is “What causes non-poverty?” failing to do whatever it is will result in a increase of poverty or rather a reveresion to poverty.

  • jh

    “As Bush put it, the persistence of poverty is “more to do with troubled lives than a troubled economy”, and it can be solved solely by religious groups.

    Please note where the quotes end. I am not sure this is a fair view of Bush’s outlook as to all problems of poverty at all. At the very least it is simplistic and does not reflect the actual funding choices of the Bush administration

  • There is a rather toxic tendency present, especially on websites like Inside Catholic, and with writers like John Zmirak, that seems to deny any sense of Gospel virtue at the expense of some sort of vague sense of Anglo-American “natural law”. The reasoning goes that if we all followed God’s law, we will all be prosperous. It really is the prosperity gospel of Blessings sprinkled with a few quotes (out of context) of St. Thomas and Rerum Novarum (taken even more out of context).

    For them, Catholicism is all about defending what I have; self-defense against liberal governments, brown immigrants, black criminals, socialist school teachers, lesbian abortionists and so on. That is basically the same match Catholics made between realist metaphysics and fascism in Spain, Portugal, France, and much of Latin America. Better red than dead, better to have a violent regime that violated the dignity of many people than let the defense of other more important pillars of the natural law such as private property and the “respect” for religion go slack.

    So, as one wise Lutheran blogger once said, the rule for these people is, “never let the Gospel get in the way of your theology”. If it looks selfish, seems selfish and barbaric, and so on, it really isn’t. That’s just your liberal, bleeding heart trying to get the best of you. After all, the Church has been in bed with brute power for 1,400 years. Where do you think the term “Christendom” comes from? If the “Christi domus” was maintained by blood and iron in the past, why should it be any different now?

    But I am just a filthy commie who could care less about the “social teaching of the Church”, so what do I know?

  • Paul DuBois

    To understand the problem of poverty, I have tried to look at it from the point of view of statistical variation. We are all born with a range of capabilities and some of those capabilities are more marketable than others. We are also born into a situation that gives us a range of opportunities. The combination of these determines how successful we will be.

    A person of moderate abilities born into a family that offers him many opportunities is way more likely to succeed than the same individual born into a family with limited opportunities. A greatly talented person (at sports, politics, business or any other skill) is likely to succeed regardless of the situation they began life in.

    Warren Buffet uses himself as an example. He was not born wealthy, but with a great ability to manage capital. Because of the time and place he lived, late 20th century United States, he was able to turn that ability into great wealth. Had he been born in Afghanistan or in a different time, with those same abilities, he would have remained poor most of his life.
    We look at people born into terrible circumstances where they see no way out and have no help from family and society, and criticize them for not succeeding. Then we look at people born with great opportunities and hold them up as examples of hard work. We shroud all this with the great American lie that you can become anything you want in America. This implies if you are wealthy it is solely your own doing, and conversely if you are poor that is your own doing as well.

    This line of thought is damaging because it teaches the wealthy (the vast majority of whom inherited wealthy to begin with) that they have no obligation to help the poor. It also teaches the poor they have not tried hard enough or they too would do well. But the true damage is that it hides the truth behind this lie, that is we are always better off working hard than not.

    I am afraid though that the Gospel leaves no doubt as to the course of action we are required to take. Unless we help the least among us, there is no place for us in the Kingdom of God. It saddens me that many Christians (at times including me) spend more time and energy arguing than fulfilling this command. We are to help, we know if this help goes beyond handouts to providing more opportunities we won’t need as many handouts in the future.

  • Arturo makes some good points. Of course, the ultimate result of dumbing down Calvinism is the prosperity gospel, one of the most insidious distortions of the gospel ever created. It’s a very short leap from the “personal responsibility” theme of RShapiro and even Blackadder to the view that God rewards those who work hard with lots of money and prosperity.

    It’s not that simple. Matt writes better and more passionately than I can on this subject. The odds are simply stacked against the poor. To make ends meet, you need to work crazy hours and neglect your family. You are forced into a dramatically inferior school system. The law is biased against you. If you are a minority, law enforcement will harass you. Equality of opportunity is a virtue, but it doesn’t exist in reality. Despite the myth of the “American dream”, the United States has less upward social mobility than other advanced countries. This is the ultimate natural experiment. Do you really think that is because the poor are too lazy to move up the social ladder? This is very blinkered thinking.

    God has a special place for the poor. We now that with certainty. Of the many parables Jesus told, in only one of them does he name one of his subjects: Lazarus. This is no accident. Unlike modern Calvinist-inspired Americans, God does not judge the poor for the own misfortune. Jesus does not tell the rich man that Lazarus made bad choices, and would been rich had he not been so lazy.

    Quite frankly, I cannot believe we are having this conversation on a Catholic blog.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    The question of cultural/social versus economic/systemic causes of poverty is an extremely important one, and has been extensively discussed in the literature. For an extremely insightful answer, one which puts many “common sense” notions to empirical test, I strongly recommend William J. Wilson’s recent book, “More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City.” He is careful to point out that these two factors cannot be separated: cultural/social factors are shaped by economic/systemic factors and vice-versa. But in the end, after looking at all the evidence, he comes to the conclusion that the economic/systemic factors are the more important in understanding why things are they way they are now. This is different from saying that these are the only factors which must be addressed in fixing the problems: he is clear that that is not the case.

    In a curt nutshell: blaming the poor for their poverty is simply wrong and not supported by the evidence, just our prejudices.

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