Document Type

Article

Publication Date

October 2003

Abstract

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. 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.