The Catholic University of America
May 29 2012

Government Programs to Assist the Poor and Paul Ryan’s Budget Proposal

In a recent interview for the Christian Broadcasting Network, Representative Paul Ryan argues that his budget proposal is entirely consistent with a primary tenet of Catholic social teaching—the preferential option for the poor. His argument rests on the Catholic notion of subsidiarity—that human problems should be addressed and solved at the lowest level of social organization possible—first the family, then the community, and then the state. In Ryan’s own words, "…the preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenets of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life. Help people get out of poverty out onto life of independence."

I will not offer any critique of Ryan’s use of the subsidiarity principle in defending his budget proposal and budget philosophy. Others much more qualified than I have already done so. What I would like to address is his view, one shared by many others, that government programs to assist the poor—welfare, food stamps, etc.—create an insidious dependency that, ironically, causes their poverty to persist. Of course, this view has its roots in the "culture of poverty" proponents of the late 1950s and 1960s. Prominent among these were Michael Harrington (The Other America, 1962), Oscar Lewis (La Vida, A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty: San Juan and New York, 1968), Walter Miller (Lower Class Society as a Generating Milieu of Gang Delinquency, 1958), and Edward Banfield (The Unheavenly City, 1970). These scholars argued that low income was only one characteristic of the poor. Their other characteristics or deviances which included dependency, illegitimacy, and instability could not be eradicated by income support. Indeed, these deviances would be reinforced by such support. Here is what Martin Anderson wrote in his 1978 book Welfare: The Political Economy of Welfare Reform in the United States:

"In effect we have created a new caste of Americans—perhaps as much as one-tenth of this nation—a caste of people free of basic wants but almost totally dependent on the State, with little hope or prospects of breaking free."

Similarly, but with a greater flare for the dramatic, a 1982 op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal by George Gilder reads:

"In this heartbreaking harvest of liberal ‘compassion,’ all the necessary disciplines of upward mobility and small business activity have given way to the vandalism and chaos of gangs and drugs, illegitimacy, and prostitution. Thus poverty has been intensified and perpetuated by income redistribution."

The host of cuts in cash and in-kind transfers to the poor by the Reagan administration were justified on the basis of such pronouncements--that these programs reinforce low self-esteem and motivational deficits among the poor, feed the cycle of poverty, and transmits the legacy of poverty and dependency from parents to their children. Using anecdotal stories of welfare queens and three-generation welfare families, welfare was likened to a narcotic breeding long term dependency.

Here’s the crucial question: What does the preponderance of research on the incentive effects of welfare have to say about welfare dependency and the welfare trap? For the answer, I searched the scholarly literature over the last three decades.


0 comments - Posted by Ernest Zampelli at 3:33 PM - Categories: Economy

Apr 17 2012

Two Ways to Be a Do-Nothing Congress

Today’s congress is viewed by the public with minimal high regard (to borrow a phrase from the ever-polite former Speaker of the House, John McCormack).  Really minimal.  The institution’s approval ratings have been abysmally low for months—lower than their usual low—with a mere 12% of the public approving of the job Congress is doing.

At a political science conference in Chicago last week, I was graciously given the opportunity to serve on a roundtable panel to discuss the current congress.  One of my fellow panelists, Scott Adler, observed that people expect Congress to do things, and yet this congress has struggled to pass even routine legislation.  It should come as no surprise that so many people scorn the place.

The most obvious reason why Congress has been so unproductive is that party control of government is split:  Democrats have a majority in the U.S. Senate and hold the White House, while Republicans control the U.S. House.   Looked at this way, all we’re seeing is the consequence of a constitutional system that permits voters to select some, but not all, occupants of elected offices in the national government.  Thus, we sometimes get divided government and, as the political scientist Sarah Binder has shown, a drop in legislative output.

But in some ways, this implies that both parties actually want to pass legislation, yet are being stymied by their political opponents.  What if neither party is even trying?  In fact, this is exactly what is happening.  It appears that Senate Democrats and House Republicans not only anticipated the problems inherent in divided government, but also figured that more would be lost than gained by genuinely trying to enact new laws.  Accordingly, each chose a different strategy that ensured nothing substantive would be enacted.


1 comments - Posted by Matthew Green at 10:45 AM - Categories: Government & Civil Society

Mar 30 2012

The Mandate Debate

What some consider President Obama’s singular achievement, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and its individual mandate came under intense scrutiny this week at the Supreme Court hearings.  Unsurprisingly, much of the extreme skepticism came from the Court’s three conservative Justices—Roberts, Scalia, and Alito.  Though the fourth conservative, Justice Thomas, remained silent during the proceedings, it is almost certain that he too harbors serious misgivings regarding the constitutionality of the individual mandate.  The fundamental question that the Justices wanted answered was very simple:  What makes health insurance so different from a standard market commodity like broccoli or a Chevy Volt that the government has the right to compel individuals to purchase it?  Needless to say, they did not receive a satisfactory answer.


0 comments - Posted by Ernest Zampelli at 5:18 PM - Categories: Economy

Mar 23 2012

The Grand Oil Party

President Obama has been getting hammered by the G.O.P. and its presidential hopefuls regarding his Administration’s policies that are suffocating the development of domestic fossil fuel supplies, thereby increasing our dependence on foreign oil from unstable sources.  Let’s take a look at some data.  Here’s what’s been happening to crude oil production in the U.S. since the President took office.  It dropped precipitously around August/September of 2008.  Since then it’s been rising—OMG!! 

  1 comments - Posted by Ernest Zampelli at 5:19 PM - Categories: Economy

Feb 29 2012

Invitation for Discussion

In 2007 at Villanova University’s law school, Justice Antonin Scalia, who is proudly Roman Catholic, claimed “there’s no such thing as a ‘Catholic judge.”  Even more, he insisted that “the Catholic faith seems to me to have little effect on my work,” and “just as there’s no ‘Catholic’ way to cook a hamburger,” he concluded…

I am hard-pressed to tell you of a single opinion of mine that would have come out differently if I were not Catholic.

In 1960 then presidential candidate Jack Kennedy addressed a gathering of the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.  At issue was the role his religion might play should he become president.  As current aspirant to the GOP presidential nomination, Rick Santorum, has reminded us recently, Kennedy famously claimed that he believed “in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” Kennedy elaborated further…

Whatever issue may come before me as president—on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling, or any other subject—I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.


Many approaches can speak to this topic.  At issue are questions of conscience and epistemology, questions of good governance and theology, questions of jurisprudence and ethics, questions for the sociology of religion and civics, and many more.

I thought this might be a fruitful and interesting discussion for the Institute to have in this blogging space.  So, I invite everyone to send in a few brief comments or maybe a few paragraphs or maybe a whole new blog post.  What role should religion have in government, law, or political life generally?    Are we understanding Kennedy’s and Scalia’s arguments correctly?  Are the arguments of Scalia and Kennedy correct?  What role does religion play?  What role should it play?

2 comments - Posted by Stephen Schneck at 8:56 PM - Categories:

Dec 14 2011

Envisioning a Gingrich Presidency

As anyone who follows the news will know by now, former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is the current (and surprise) front-runner for his party’s presidential nomination.  While I remain highly skeptical that Gingrich can overcome his own predilection for self-destruction and win the nomination (let alone match Mitt Romney’s money and superior organization), I’ve nonetheless found myself wondering what a Gingrich presidency might be like.  Here are my answers to four questions about such a presidency, based on my own examination of his speakership and career in the House.


0 comments - Posted by Matthew Green at 4:02 PM - Categories: Government & Civil Society

Dec 12 2011

EU Integration and the Common Good

Despite the agreement that was reached last Friday, the project of European integration is still facing one of its most precarious moments.  The European debt crisis has the potential to shatter not only the eurozone, but the entire European Union.  The results would be catastrophic, not only for Europe, but also for the global economy.


0 comments - Posted by Robert Christian at 8:40 AM - Categories: Economy | Peace & Environment