Two Views of Poverty

The Roman Catholic bishops have completed with distinction their six-year task of drafting a pastoral letter on the American economy entitled “Economic Justice for All.” Above all, the report, with its commitment to the poor, is timely, coming at a moment when persons within the Reagan Administration are pursuing with ideological zeal a new attack on the fabric of the safety net that has been constructed for the nation’s disadvantaged.

The constructive, compassionate and committed work of the bishops is all the more evident because of the contrast with a report, issued coincidentally, of the White House Working Group on the Family --a document that argues unconvincingly that many of the problems facing families were created by the governmental programs designed to cure them.

” . . . The obligation to provide justice for all means that the poor have the single most urgent claim on the conscience of the nation,” the bishops affirmed. “As individuals and as a nation, therefore, we are called to make a fundamental ‘option for the poor.’ ”

There is a need for extensive reform and legislative action to address the injustices so apparent in the extensive unemployment, in the widening gulf between affluent and impoverished people, in the diversion of resources to military expenditures, the bishops said.


Reform is proposed to strengthen, not to dismantle, government social programs, the bishops made clear. Indeed, they argue the merits of increased rather than decreased government intervention to assure a minimum standard of living and a job opportunity for every American.

The report of the White House working group is one of three on which President Reagan is expected to base proposals next year for revision of the welfare system. One on welfare has not been completed. The first, on federalism, and the second, on the family, give credence to speculation that the President’s intent is to reduce even further the role of the federal government in dealing with the disadvantaged. The growing resistance to his efforts will be strengthened by the vision and values demonstrated in the work of the bishops.

Some people have already characterized the White House report on the family as “outrageous,” and some elements of it clearly are. To deny welfare to single mothers under age 21 unless they live with their parents, and to see this as a move “toward making illegitimate motherhood less attractive,” betrays both ignorance of the problem and callousness concerning the lives affected. “The document is less a policy paper than a tantrum,” Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), himself an authority on the issues of families in America, told the New York Times. “Worse, it is an embarrassment. They’re not writing from facts. This is just ideology.”

There are, however, within the White House report broad standards that all Americans can applaud that are similar to elements of the pastoral letter of the Catholic bishops and, if properly implemented, call for a commitment on the part of the President to the very reforms mentioned by the bishops.


The most important recommendation, according to Gary L. Bauer, chairman of the White House working group and also undersecretary of education, is the proposal that the President instruct all federal agencies to file statements explaining how each policy and each law will help keep families intact.

But there are in the White House report alarming ideological affirmations of discredited concepts. The “poverty culture” and the “welfare culture” of which the report speaks are convenient labels designed to shift the blame to the poor for their own condition and to deny the responsibility of society. There is no evidence that liberal divorce laws, in and of themselves, have, as the report suggests, somehow driven the forces of dissolution of marriages in America. Nor do most accept the notion that the “fabric of family life has been frayed by the abrasive experiments of two liberal decades.” Illegitimacy and divorce, so appallingly high in the United States, are significantly lower in some nations with far more generous social-welfare systems. Even the ideology of the report is inconsistent, with the report arguing on the one hand for a diminished role of federal government and on the other hand for government incentives for larger families--an intrusion into one of the most personal decisions of life. Incidentally, the report suggests that the tax incentives for larger families could be financed by ending child-care tax credits, hinting at a policy to discourage two wage earners in families with children.

What the bishops are seeking, and what the White House report seems intent on ignoring, is a “creative and ongoing effort to fashion a system of income support for the poor that protects their basic dignity and provides the necessary assistance in an efficient manner.” The bishops have served the nation well in fashioning, at this time, a useful blueprint.