Report On The Pew Forum On Religion And Public Life

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The Compassion Component: Welfare Reform and the Tradition of Social Justice
The National Press Club
By Janice Shaw Crouse, Ph.D.
The Beverly LaHaye Institute: A Center for Studies in Women’s Issues
July 16, 2002

Should moral, religious and ethical values shape welfare policy? On Tuesday, July 16, the Pew Foundation brought together 6 panelists1 to reflect on that question. In particular, the panelists were asked to examine the policy questions that are rooted in moral understandings about the responsibilities of individuals and the responsibilities of the government to promote social justice. E.J. Dionne, Jr., Senior Fellow of the Brookings Institution and Co-chair of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, served as moderator of the panel. With his typical wit, Dionne provided incisive analysis of the various presentations-alternately skewering or praising the panelists’ insights.

Dionne opened the session by noting that welfare reform is deeply rooted in moral and religious principles, yet wondered why the voices expressing religious and ethical views have had such a minor role in shaping public policy.

Jim Wallis
(President, Call to Renewal)

Jim Wallis, President of Call to Renewal, called for the forum to be a place where “real discernment takes place.” He noted that, for welfare reform to have religious reference points, certain paradigm shifts would have to be made. He cited five cultural and moral changes that he thought would be necessary for progress:

(1) He agreed with the need for personal responsibility, but declared that we cannot continue to blame the poor. He said that the Bible focuses on the need for the rich to exercise responsibility toward the poor. While he noted the “dependencies and pathologies” that exist among the poor, he was adamant in stating that the poor did not create the welfare system. We need to ask, he said, “What is our social responsibility as a society?”
(2) When poor women and children take responsibility, we cannot consider that a subsidy, Wallis insisted. For work programs to succeed, he declared, all of society must consider welfare an investment-a social contract entered into by the whole of society.
(3) Providing childcare, in his opinion, must be considered a moral responsibility. He believes that essential public funding is a moral commitment that we must make as a society. “Women shouldn’t have to choose between being a good parent and a good worker.”
(4) Dead end jobs must not be the result of welfare reform, he said, otherwise we substitute welfare poverty with work poverty. Again, Wallis emphasized that welfare was society’s “investment” in the poor so, as a nation, our moral response must be to be generous, not reluctant.
(5) Most important, in Wallis’ view, is to change the definition of success. We cannot just evaluate how many people have been moved off the welfare reform roles. Poverty rates must go down, too.

Like several of the subsequent speakers, Wallis kept emphasizing that the new welfare reauthorization MUST focus on self-sufficiency. There was considerable disagreement, however, on the meaning of self-sufficiency.

The bottom-line question, according to Wallis, is “How are the kids doing?” This is the “God” question, for him. All the other questions, he said, have no significance in comparison. He cited the familiar statistics about child poverty-comparing the rates of child poverty in United States with other nations. He thought the statistic of Black child poverty (1 in 3) particularly shameful.

Jim Skillen
(President, The Center for Public Justice)

Jim Skillen, President of the Center for Public Justice, focused on 3 principles that he believes have come to the fore over the past 15 years.

First: COMPLEXITY. Human beings, he said, are complex creatures who cannot be described by one dimension such as “poor” or “welfare dependent.” Public policies must change to reflect the complexity of needs among the poor.

Second: DIFFERENCE. Mr. Skillen declared that different organizations and institutions bear different responsibilities. In addition, the various elements of society-citizens in need, different religious communities, families, etc-all bear different responsibilities. There is not just one kind of need with one group that can meet that need. Instead, we all have to work together in order to address the varied situations.

Third: JUSTICE. Welfare policies, he stressed, must be grounded in social justice; governments cannot bear responsibilities that individuals should bear and vice versa. Skillen asserted that the major sources of social justice are personal and private as well as universal and public. He believes that the sources of motivation and vision are found in different foundations of faith. We have to get over our aversion to pluralism, he said because none of us can bear the total burden of social justice; partnerships are required to get the job done and diverse philosophies and traditions can work together.

Ron Haskins
(Senior Advisor for Welfare Policy at the Domestic Policy Council of the White House)

Ron Haskins reviewed for the audience the salient aspects of the “overarching system of welfare that we have created.” He stressed that the single greatest emphasis of the 1996 Welfare Reform bill was its promotion of self-sufficiency. He emphasized that self-sufficiency had to be the goal of any reauthorization plan, in the same way that it was for the original bill. He mentioned three specific ingredients that are essential for welfare reform to work: (1) time limits, (2) work requirements, and (3) sanctions. He distributed a chart showing the fundamental change that has taken place since welfare reform was enacted in 1996. He showed hard data indicating that earnings increased as welfare income fell from 1993 through 2000 –Earnings (with EITC making up less than 10% of the total) increased from slightly more than $3500 to nearly $9000. On the other hand, welfare income dropped 40% from slightly under $5500 to nearly $3000. These data indicate a decline in the welfare roles as a result of the reform effort being fundamentally bipartisan, American and supporting working families. He declared that the main goal of reauthorization should be to maintain the elements of the 1996 reform; we are on the right track. Haskins noted that child poverty has dropped by 25% and is now at its lowest point for Black children and the lowest point for single mothers. He asserted that such dramatic changes-“changes of this magnitude will not come again in our lifetime!” He challenged the panelists to support continuing on that path.

Sharon Parrott
(Co-director, Federal TANF Policy, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)

Sharon Parrott pointed out that the story of the past six years of welfare reform is the same regardless of who is telling it-caseloads are down, poverty is down, employment is up and earnings are up. Her major concern is that “what is often left out is that some families are being left behind and are not faring well in this system.” She sees barriers to employment (physical and mental impairment, substance abuse, illiteracy, etc) and stresses “these are not deadbeat people!” Instead, she said, they want to move forward, but they need a different kind of help.

And, while she agreed that welfare reform has produced unquestionably dramatic changes and notable reductions in child poverty, she is concerned about the “questions that must be addressed by the reauthorization.” She asked, “How can we move forward on the remaining challenges without first examining the other factors that affected the positive improvements regarding welfare?” She kept emphasizing that different people have different emphases while agreeing on the central success of welfare reform, but she thought it was important to note that other factors had influenced the positive outcome of welfare reform and that those factors had impact that was, perhaps, even more significant than the welfare reform bill.

For instance, Parrott thinks that the following circumstances were vital to the positive outcome on welfare since 1996: (1) the strong economy was critical, (2) in some respects the success of welfare reform was a historical accident because funding for welfare case loads started falling before 1996. She said, “TANF freed up dollars and provided a great feedback loop to fund programs,” (3) flexibility played a key role in the turnaround-we were able to tailor programs to meet recipients’ needs, (4) work supports were increased prior to 1996-EITC, expanding health care, children and parents both having health care, etc.

Where does all this leave us in terms of reauthorization, she asked? We face some distinct challenges, according to Parrott: We need to help recipients get better jobs and improve the long-term prospects for working families. Today’s challenges, she believes, are distinctly different from the challenges of 1996. At that time, in her opinion, the debate was highly partisan. Though she implied conservative partisanship was the problem; she proved that the liberals were at least as partisan when she launched into a highly partisan description of what transpired in the congressional debates and a highly partisan description of the current situation. Her conclusion was that the ingredients for consensus exist because now the quest is to find “the best way to do” welfare reform instead of whether entitlements should be an option at all.

Roberto Suro
(Executive Director, Pew Hispanic Center)

Mr. Roberto Suro discussed the various ways that the 1996 welfare reforms affected the immigrant population. He expressed concern about the view that welfare was a magnet drawing immigrants to the United States because they wanted the entitlements. During the past 6 years, he declared, “immigrants have kept coming to America so we must revise our views.” The economy is hot, he said, and that fuels the demand for low-wage workers. He described the immigrants as “not single mothers, but whole families-some 4 million since 1996-who have come here because employers wanted to hire them.” These families are working, he complains, yet they remain poor-about half are low income and more than a third live in poverty.

What we have to realize, declared Mr. Suro, is that work is meaningless to the working poor. Those who are most eligible to work-young men-have the highest levels of unemployment. The major work support issues are language skills, health coverage, hunger, and a misunderstanding of U.S. policies. He strongly believes that the work requirement must include time for learning English. He worries that the first 5-6 years that an immigrant is in the U.S. are the hardest ones for making money; yet this is the period during which they are denied benefits. He concluded that the “immigrant experience denies work as a solution to poverty.” He believes that the use of public benefits is not always a way to avoid work and that poverty doesn’t always lead to dependence. He detests the “prejudice” that the immigrant poor are “not worthy of a safety net.” He asked the final question: What does society owe to its menial laborers –“to those who cook our meals, clean our houses, wash our cars, mow our lawns, etc.? Finally, he asserted, the “real” God question is, “How are the kids doing?” Immigrant children, he declared, are U.S. citizens yet they have the “challenge of moving from the world of their parents into the world of post-industrialized society.” Thus, “the ultimate challenge is not to move from dependency to work, but from working poverty to dignity.”

Ken Conner
(President, Family Research Council)

Mr. Conner focused on the issue of marriage; what he called the “elephant in the room.” He stated unequivocally that the 2-parent married couple was the best anecdote to poverty and the best way to raise children. Marriage, he pointed out, has profound moral and spiritual impact. He quoted extensively from Marvin Olasky who reviewed the effects of private charity in comparison to entitlements where marriage became the loser. As government entitlements replaced fathers, Conner said, the social and economic aspects of the marriage contract became null and void. Conner pointed out that these changes had far-reaching impact on the poor, especially women and children. Now, the changes embedded into the American culture. Conner warned that any program of welfare reform that ignores or trivializes marriage is doomed for failure.

(See BLI’s Dot.Commentary, 6/6/02 for a discussion of the relationship between marriage and welfare)


During the question and answer period, the panelists made the following points:

  • Reauthorization provides the opportunity for consensus and thoughtful people are drafting the bill. (Wallis)
  • “Politicizing precludes moral consensus.” (Wallis)
  • “Immigration has lifted up the whole U.S. economy over the past 25 years.” (Suro)
  • “Undocumented workers are an economic necessity; we need those 5-6 million workers.” (Suro)
  • “There is consensus on the Hill to NOT debate the reauthorization; there is consensus to have consensus.”
  • “Marriage is an anti-poverty engine.” (Conner)
  • “Marriage is a very important component of welfare reform, but it is not a panacea; it is an important risk factor for pathologies and an important structural institution.” (Conner)
  • “Since 1995 the data has changed in some way on all of the family composition trends.” (Haskins)
  • “There is no question that family composition is at the heart of the poverty and welfare problems.” (Haskins)
  • “Liberals should be careful about defining ‘self-sufficiency’.” (Patton)
  • “The debate over TANF was incredibly partisan and it boiled down to ‘who could be toughest’?” (Patton)
  • “Self-sufficiency is not the sole goal of welfare.” (Suro)
  • Conner responded to a question from a representative of the National Organization for Women who asked about advocating marriage when there is so much abuse of women in marriage. He cited statistics that indicate abuse is more likely to occur in co-habitation than in marriage.
  • Sharon Patton went into a lengthy criticism of the conservative positions, the President’s program recommendations and, what she called an “all or nothing” approach to welfare reform (at the same time that she greatly lamented the partisanship of the debate-interestingly, no one else on the panel got into partisan criticisms). She gave a passionate appeal for a liberal position on welfare reauthorization issues.
  • “The 1996 debate was contentious because expectations were so great; in essence, we set ourselves up for disappointment regarding welfare reform.” (Skillen)
  • “All the political positions on welfare are so longstanding that they are solidified now.” (Skillen)
  • “We have a social contract with the working poor; we cannot forget them so long as they stay off welfare.” (Wallis)
  • “Let’s not impose on our poor a standard of personal responsibility that we won’t all share.” [He was, of course, referring to “corporate greed.”] (Wallis)

Clearly, the forum highlighted the wide spectrum of philosophical and ideological positions held by the panelists, and, except for the one partisan incident, the panelists presented their perspective forthrightly and within the context of their moral, ethical and religious beliefs. It was a valuable exchange of ideas on a very important contemporary issue.

1 Panelists included: Jim Wallis, President of Call to Renewal, Jim Skillen, President of the Center for Public Justice, Ron Haskins, Senior Advisor for Welfare Policy at the Domestic Policy Council of the White House, Sharon Parrott, Co-director of Federal TANF Policy, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Roberto Suro, Executive Director, Pew Hispanic Center, and Ken Conner, President of the Family Research Council.

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