The current deterioration of the American economy is bringing new attention to the problem of poverty in the United States. After falling over the last few years, the number of Americans living in poverty has begun to rise once again. (1) Notwithstanding the achievements of recent "welfare reforms," the American poor continue to be numerous by any measure.
Unfortunately, decades of affluence have exacerbated American tendencies to view liberal concepts such as freedom, autonomy, tolerance, and choice in ways that accentuate personal autonomy over community integration. These liberal values have been increasingly unhinged from strong countervailing principles like duty and responsibility, and many Americans feel no strong impetus to sacrifice in order to help the weakest members of their society.
This situation continues unabated as a lack of common purpose in American life and a materialistic vision of society have made it extremely difficult for American law and public policy to confront poverty in the United States in a meaningful way. After explaining how strong propensities toward materialism and individualism in American culture have affected views toward welfare in the United States, I will explain how current American reforms of economic assistance for the poor are creatures of a political rendering of poverty that fails to take seriously the low regard in which many Americans hold the poor. From this it becomes clear that, in the long run little should be expected from American welfare reform. For an alternative vision, I will draw on Catholic social thought and David Hollenbach's recent work in Christian ethics to argue that the principles of solidarity and the common good as understood in Catholic social thought would: (1) offer the poor a more integrated role in American society, (2) function as a corrective to the ongoing erosion of a sense of communal responsibility in American culture, and (3) provide the theoretical foundation for a more comprehensive structure of income and social support for the American poor.
I. MORE PRECIOUS FOR WHAT THEY HAVE THAN FOR WHO THEY ARE: WELFARE REFORM IN A MATERIAL WORLD
The trend toward an excessively inward looking and materialistic culture has a long history in the United States. As early as the 1950s a trend was identified, and the tragic effects it would have on the lives of the American poor were recognized. In 1957, Catholic theologian John Courtney Murray wrote that human dignity was severely threatened by what he termed American "practical materialism." (3) As increasing numbers of Americans adopted the belief that the accumulation of material goods and wealth was the highest attainment of human endeavor, Murray feared that deeper understandings of human dignity and purpose in American life would be destroyed:
[American practical materialism] has had, in fact, one dominating
ideal: the conquest of the material world.... It has made one
promise: a more abundant life for the ordinary man and woman,
the abundance being ultimately in physical comfort. It has had one
technique of social progress: the exploitation, for all they are
worth in cold hard cash, of the resources of the land and forest
and stream, and of the mechanical inventiveness of its citizens.
It has recognized one supreme law: supply and demand. It has had
one standard of value: the quantitative, that judges that best
which is biggest. It has aimed at one order: the economic. It
confers one accolade on those who serve it: wealth. It knows one
evil: poverty. (4)
In an American society obsessed with material consumption and wealth creation, the existence of the poor and the intractable nature of poverty are discomforting signs of the limits of the nation's materialistic ethos. It also reveals that core ideologies, such as unfettered individual liberty, and the inevitability of American-style capitalism and political democracy have failed to realize an end to poverty. …