A Lenten Focus on Catholic Social Tradition

The U.S. Capitol (CNS photo/James Lawler Duggan, Reuters)
The U.S. Capitol (CNS photo/James Lawler Duggan, Reuters)
This week in 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated as president, the last time the event was held in March. It was the first of four inaugurations for FDR, the one during which he uttered the now famous “The only thing we have to fear is … fear itself” line.
The next day, he declared a four-day banking holiday to prevent people from cashing out their accounts and convened a special session of Congress and launched the New Deal.

Eventually, New Deal legislation would unleash the bulk of the modern social safety net in the United States. The Works Progress Administration gave jobs to unemployed Americans to build post offices, bridges, parks, and schools. The National Labor Relations Board was established to give workers a voice in the halls of power. And the Social Security Act ensured Americans would not be destitute in their old age and provided unemployment insurance to those without jobs. Today, half of all Americans over 65 would live in poverty without Social Security.

The New Deal legacy endures today, but its core is under attack from all sides.

Rep. Paul Ryan introduced the GOP House budget this week, telling the Washington Post that it would cut or eliminate funding from scores of social safety net programs.

“There are nearly 100 programs at the federal level that are meant to help, but they have actually created a poverty trap,” Ryan told the Post. “There is no coordination with these programs, and new ones are frequently being added without much consideration to how they affect other programs. We’ve got to fix the situation, and this report is a first step toward significant reform.”

But over at Think Progress, Igor Volsky thinks Ryan is being less than genuine, citing examples from the GOP’s report, entitled “The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later,” that actually show that federal programs are quite effective at helping to alleviate poverty. For example:

  • Independent studies have found that the Elderly Nutrition Program “is well targeted towards the low-income elderly and to those with increased risk for nutrition and health problems,” the report says.
  • The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program “increases birth weights for low-income women.”
  • And the Child Care and Development Fund “increase the likelihood of participation in the labor force” and “encourage[s] single mothers to pursue education.”

Each year, when budget proposals are prepared, we seem to take certain things for granted.

The military, of course, will see an increase in its already staggering budget. While there’s been some talk of reducing the size of our armed forces to World War II levels, actual spending will increase over the coming years.

The uber-wealthy, often referred to euphemistically as “job creators,” have lobbyists and lawmakers working on their behalf to preserve tax loopholes and fight off tax increases. The middle class, of course, has seen its share of the tax burden skyrocket over the past few decades.

What we’re left with, then, at budget time, is squabbling over minor details, with debate usually focused on how much to spend helping the poor. And let’s face it — helping the poor isn’t exactly the sexiest issue in Washington.

The size of the proverbial pie is actually quite large; there’s plenty of money to go around. What happens, though, is that the rich take an increasingly large serving and leave a smaller and smaller piece for the rest of us to fight over. It turns the middle class against the working class, and those who can’t do much to help themselves are looked on with scorn and reviled.

Neither party should be especially proud of its recent record on alleviating poverty here at home. Since the days of FDR, then LBJ, the Democrats have sometimes concerned themselves too much with electability, often at the expense of seriously considering ways to assist the poor. Republicans are less coy about their intentions, which generally involve undermining poverty assistance programs while protecting the wealth of the 1%.

When it’s time to set the budget, we’re told there’s simply not enough money for all the social programs we’d like to fund. We’re told that the government can only play a small role, and that private charities must step up to take care of the less fortunate. We’re told that government is the problem, not part of the solution.

This may be one’s ideology, but it’s not the teaching of the Catholic Church.

Since we’re in the season of Lent, when almsgiving and sacrifice should be daily on our minds, we would do well to commit ourselves to learning a bit more about what our Church teaches about the economy, the positive role of government, and ending poverty.

Ours is a rich tradition, and while it doesn’t fit squarely into any political party, program, or ideology, the Catholic Social Tradition offers valuable insight into how we, as a society, are obliged to care for the least among us.

This Lent, let’s commit ourselves to learning what our Church has to say, and then fulfilling our prophetic roles to challenge our society to care for the poor and marginalized.