The Poor Belong to Us: Catholic Charities and American Welfare

The Poor Belong to Us: Catholic Charities and American Welfare

The Poor Belong to Us: Catholic Charities and American Welfare

The Poor Belong to Us: Catholic Charities and American Welfare

Synopsis

Between the Civil War and World War II, Catholic charities evolved from volunteer and local origins into a centralized and professionally trained workforce that played a prominent role in the development of American welfare. Dorothy Brown and Elizabeth McKeown document the extraordinary efforts of Catholic volunteers to care for Catholic families and resist Protestant and state intrusions at the local level, and they show how these initiatives provided the foundation for the development of the largest private system of social provision in the United States.

Excerpt

Catholics have played a crucial but largely undocumented role in the evolution of American welfare. the burgeoning numbers of Catholic immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century commanded the attention of Protestant charity workers and reformers, who labored to succor and discipline their new neighbors. Galvanized both by the condition of their coreligionists and the practices of Protestant reformers, Catholics in the last quarter of the nineteenth century developed an extended network of institutions and services aimed at taking care of "their own." They also learned to leverage their position in "charity" to win a voice in local, state, and national policy-making and to gain access to the public purse. Charity became a primary emblem of Catholic identity in American culture and the chief means by which the church established a public voice. Small wonder then that in the midst of the New Deal debates over social security, a Catholic bishop rose to the floor to mark the territory. "The poor belong to us," Bishop Aloisius Muench defiantly reminded his colleagues. "We will not let them be taken from us!"

This proprietary Catholic claim to the poor was sustained by decades of labor on the part of religious communities of women, by diocesan welfare organizations, and by the investment in institutions and services that fueled a growing Catholic presence in the formation of local and state welfare policy. By 1935 Catholics were in position to significantly shape new social legislation for families and children. As New Deal and Great Society programs enlarged state responsibility for welfare over succeeding decades, Catholic charities maintained a consistent, if complicated, course as both a partner in government programs and as an advocate for the poor. By the 1990s the umbrella organization, Catholic Charities, U.S.A., represented the largest system of private social provision in the nation.

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