Is the welfare state Christian?

There’s been some back-and-forth in the comments to this post about whether Christianity is really compatible with social democracy (or we might just as accurately say welfare-state liberalism). Does Christian ethics require provision for the poor to take place at the local level and/or through private organizations rather than being carried out by the federal government?

This article from Elizabeth Stoker provides a timely response. She says that there are good reasons for Christians to support state-based welfare, not instead of private charity, but in addition to it.

So what is the Christian argument, then, for supporting a compound structure of state welfare programs and private charity when it comes to addressing the stresses of life, which range from poverty to illness and old age? Foremost is the idea that human dignity entitles people to an “existence minimum” which guarantees their basic needs will be reliably met without discrimination based on caprice, race, gender, creed, orientation, or any other marker. Since the guarantee of stability promised by an existence minimum is the foundation upon which lives can be built — and because voluntary private charity is by nature not a guarantee — the state is the best mechanism to deliver a baseline standard of living.

She goes on to point out that, as Reinhold Niebuhr argued, relying on private charity leaves existing power structures in place because the wealthy are still calling the tune.

I think it’s important not to be dogmatic here. Programs should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and and by the results they produce. Some programs–Social Security and Medicare, for instance–have been very successful. Others–the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children program comes to mind–had, by general consensus, serious problems, even if there was less agreement about what should replace them. (My view is that the program which replaced AFDC–Temporary Assistance to Needy Families–is also seriously flawed.) The point is that the specific programs should be subordinate to the results we’re trying to achieve. If you’re clear on those, you can be flexible on program design. The state can commit to ensuring a “social minimum” while using a trial-and-error approach to bringing it about. In theory, this should allow for at least some cooperation and give-and-take between liberals and conservatives.

It’s kind of strange that the “private charity only” position has come to be so closely associated with Christianity. Not only is it at odds with the practice elsewhere in the world, but it tends to ignore much of the history of Christian social reform in America.  As Christians (and others) have worked to ameliorate poverty and other social ills, they have often found that this requires large-scale structural or institutional changes that can best (or only) be carried out by the national government. Individual conversion, local efforts, and private charity–while essential–aren’t sufficient.

11 thoughts on “Is the welfare state Christian?

  1. I confess that one of my frustrations with these debates is the way that things often lurch from ‘private’ charity to large state programmes, without sufficient attention to mediating structures of civil society and more local agencies of government. Subsidiarity may often be an unhelpfully vague concept, but I believe that it has some relevance here. I would like to see an account of a ‘welfare society’, within which our responsibility towards the poor was answered on all levels of society, rather than focused on a single agency, whether that agency is the ‘private’ individual or the state.

  2. I agree! Though I still think the national-level government should, at the very least, establish certain standards (e.g., we’re not going to let anyone fall below a certain minimum if we can help it). That leaves open what role “subsidiary” organizations should play. In the US at least, much of the welfare state actually is decentralized to the state/local/non-governmental sector (though not always for the better).

    1. gcallah

      What Alastair said: some safety net does not equal “social democracy.”

      By the way, a map just came out of the abortion rates in Europe: the rates in the “kind” Scandanavian social democracies are horrific.

      1. gcallah

        Sorry, didn’t see your question till today:

        Also, just read this:
        “Christopher Lasch, who in the 1980s wrote a series of devastating critiques of the elite as those least likely to advance the cause of the working classes. An atheist Marxist early in his career, Lasch’s late work—especially his books The True and Only Heaven and The Revolt of the Elites—exposed the intellectual and financial elites for their irresponsibility and deep hostility toward the working classes. His fears that the society they envisioned—globalized libertinism—has come to pass, with these elites now reaping the advantages while the (unemployed) working poor “enjoy” the fruits of sexual liberation: the de-linking of individuals from robust and settled communities, the destruction of networks, cultures, and traditions that supported families and neighborhoods. He identified liberals especially for special and searing scorn, exposing their sentimental pity as a veneer that covered their main aim of outsourcing actual responsibility toward the less fortunate to a faceless, uncaring, distant and irresponsible government while they enjoyed the fruits of their outsized gains and organized license.”

        Yes, that is the main aim of social democracy.

  3. Something else that’s almost impossible to overstate in the US context is the extent to which, historically, local political authorities and civil society were captured by racist interests. Often the national government has been the only entity with the power and wherewithal to fight that. I don’t think that should preclude reliance on the non-federal sector, but it’s certainly a consideration.

  4. When I think of private charities, I think of *conservative* Christianity. It’s that Big Society idea in the UK that private charity can take the place of government programs. But charity keeps the power in the hands of the givers. Poor people don’t exist as object lessons and a means to religious brownie points for Christians. Public programs are about justice, not charity, and they respect (ideally) the dignity and worth of recipients. I do give to animal charities because that’s pretty much all there is to help in that area.

  5. gcallah

    “She goes on to point out that, as Reinhold Niebuhr argued, relying on private charity leaves existing power structures in place because the wealthy are still calling the tune.”

    As if in government someone else is calling the tune!!

  6. No one in their right mind denies that the rich influence the government. But legal entitlements provide a certain predictability and security that private charity doesn’t. (And the fact that the rich have generally fought tooth-and-nail against government-provided economic security tells us something.)

    1. gcallah

      “And the fact that the rich have generally fought tooth-and-nail against government-provided economic security tells us something.”

      No, they haven’t Lee! The very rich lean liberal. Keeping the poor bought off with welfare makes sure no riots upset the gravy train.

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