Americans are a generous and conscientious people, concerned with making sure that no one falls through the cracks and that everyone is given a fair shot at leading a thriving life. This is, perhaps, one reason why Pope Francis’s recent call for all of us to remember our obligations to the poor resonates with so many people.
Each of us should take Francis’s words to heart and ask how we’re using our time and treasure to help restore the poor to wholeness, to help them integrate into society and lead flourishing lives. As The Heritage Foundation explains in a study guide titled “Seek Social Justice,” poverty in the United States is at its root more relational than material, calling particularly for institutions with relational capital to help restore those in need. When it comes to poverty abroad, the Acton Institute’s “PovertyCure” provides another wonderful resource about exercising effective compassion.
Our obligations to the poor extend into the political arena and require good public policy. Crafting such policy requires sound principles, prudence, and technical expertise to determine any given policy’s likely economic, social, and cultural effects. Experts equally committed to enacting the best policy for the poor (and for all people) will certainly disagree, and discussion should proceed in a spirit of charity and honesty. Inevitable disagreement needn’t result in charges of bad faith or moral callousness, which are toxic to our political health.
Sound public policy would emphasize economic freedom, which allows for employment growth, and the rule of law, which helps protect citizens and prevent the powerful from rigging the tax code and government regulation in a way that favors their special interests. Other key components would include school choice initiatives and patient-centered health care reform. Civil society institutions and families are often best equipped to address human need, as Robert Rector explains in his report “Marriage: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty.”
And after 50 years of a War on Poverty that has not done justice to the poor, it is past time to enact effective welfare reforms. Too often our safety net functions as a poverty trap. We cannot be content to simply keep doing what we’ve been doing. We must find ways to transform welfare into workfare, to help people lead flourishing lives.
The welfare reform of the 1990s—which transformed assistance to a hand up rather than a handout—was a great success in reducing child poverty and mobilizing people into productive employment. Alas, it applied to only one of the over 80 means-tested welfare programs that the federal government sponsors. The unfinished work of welfare reform is to apply similar requirements to all programs so that individuals are equipped to achieve independence and self-sufficiency.
Americans do care about the poor. That’s why we should not be satisfied with status-quo public policies that have not well served those in need over the past 50 years. Now is the time to heed Pope Francis’s call, to commit personally to serving them and politically to crafting policies that truly help.