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Welfare: More money sucked up, less seeps down


Hard, flat metal benches without backs have been installed in the downtown Kansas City, Mo., bus depot. The benches are designed to be as uncomfortable as possible. Translate: “Homeless, stay away.”

More sympathetically, the local Plaza public library allows virtually all visitors to sit in comfortable chairs, to read, browse -- and even to nod off a bit.

The two scenes, opposite responses to human need, might serve as an illustration for the themes being played out in our nation’s welfare policies. Where once the country seemed intent on responding to human need, it now seems determined to punish humans in need.

Since the War on Poverty of the 1960s, our nation has attempted to respond to the needy by establishing a safety net. Now this has changed.

Welfare reform has moved us to a radically new approach that is behavior-oriented rather than income-oriented. It is now aimed at getting welfare recipients to work and not necessarily for a living wage. Simply to work. Period. Regardless of circumstance.

With the signing by President Clinton of welfare reform legislation Aug. 22, 1996, we embarked on a grand social experiment in human behavior modification. Where this will take us or how it will affect the neediest among us is an open question. But there is plenty of apprehension among those who normally provide services for the poor.

One of the principal drawbacks to this approach, critics point out -- aside from questions of the availability of jobs paying livable wages -- is the effects of the experiment on children.

We were reminded of the size of the question recently when the U.S. Census Bureau released its annual statistics. According to bureau figures, children currently make up 40 percent of the nation’s poor although they comprise 27 percent of its total population.

Further, 20.8 percent of our nation’s children under the age of 18 live in poverty, according to the bureau. One in five children! This is the highest poverty rate for any age group.

The poverty rate among U.S. children at the end of the 20th century becomes an even more haunting issue as we witness the growing gap between the rich and poor in America.

According to the most recent census information, the highest U.S. income quintile accounted for 49.0 percent of total income in 1996 as compared with 43.8 percent in 1967. At the other end, the lowest quintile accounted for 4 percent in 1967 and 3.7 percent in 1996.

These changes together mean that the middle 60 percent of the income distribution (roughly those households with incomes between $15,000 and $68,000 in 1996) has received a declining share over this period -- from 52.3 percent of income in 1967 down to 47.4 percent in 1996.

While the poor get poorer, middle-income Americans are also seeing their share of the dream dwindle as wealth becomes more concentrated among the very rich.

Another disturbing sign of social decline shows up in Census Bureau health insurance coverage figures. The number of people without health insurance coverage in 1996 was 41.7 million, 1.1 million more people than in 1995, or 15.6 percent of the population. Meanwhile, the proportion of poor people without health insurance coverage was 30.8 percent, about double the rate for all persons.

The number of uninsured children grew to 10.6 million (14.8 percent of all children) in 1996. The number of poor children without health insurance was 3.4 million (23.3 percent of all poor children).

Catholic social teachings have long held that the great disparity between rich and poor is morally unacceptable.

Pope Pius XI wrote: “The vast differences between the few who hold excessive wealth and the many who live in destitution constitute a grave evil in modern society.”

Pope John XXIII wrote in Pacem in Terris: “For experience has taught us that, unless ... authorities take suitable action with regard to economic, political and cultural matters, inequalities between the citizens tend to become more and more widespread, especially in the modern world, and as a result human rights are rendered totally ineffective and the fulfillment of duties is compromised.”

Vatican II repeated this basic concern in Gaudium et Spes: “If the demands of justice and equity are to be satisfied, vigorous efforts must be made ... to remove as quickly as possible the immense economic inequalities which now exist.” The document went on to say that “it is impossible to conceive true progress without recognizing the necessity ... both of economic growth and participation. ... Participation constitutes a right which is to be applied both in the economic and in the social and political field.”

More recently, Pope John Paul II expanded on this theme, saying, “It is not merely a matter of ‘giving from one’s surplus,’ but of helping entire peoples which are presently excluded or marginalized to enter into the sphere of economic and human development. For this to happen ... it requires above all a change of lifestyles, of models of production and consumption, and of the established structures of power which today govern societies.”

So how do we stay faithful? How do we respond? In each assessment, Catholic social teachings challenge us to move beyond charity to social and political analysis and the transformation of values and society.

Tom Fox is NCR's publisher.

National Catholic Reporter, October 24, 1997