Reviewed by Patrick McCORMICK, Gonzaga University, SPOKANE, WA 99258
There are three very good reasons to read Thomas Massaro's book. First, it provides a highly readable, informative, and thoughtful examination of the history, context, content and possible implications of the 1996 Welfare Reform legislation. Second it places this legislation and its underlying assumptions in conversation with the basic and intermediate principles of Catholic Social Teachings, while also letting us hear from a number of other informed and critical voices. Finally, it offers an excellent example of the often tricky and intimidating casuistry of social analysis, and lays out a reasoned foundation for the "middle axioms" informing the US Bishops' position on this question and undergirding their very concrete evaluations and recommendations. Students and professors of university courses in Political Science and Christian/Catholic Social Justice will find an excellent upper division undergraduate or graduate text. At the same time, concerned adults seeking a coherent and comprehensive analysis of an issue far too important to be left to the sound bite and anecdotal treatment usually offered by pundits and politicians will discover all they are looking for here. Not only do I recommend that you read this book. I suggest you send a copy to your congressional representative.
Laying the groundwork for his argument, Massaro spends his first two chapters delineating a number of basic goods, positions and principles proclaimed and defended by Catholic Social Teachings. Covering material familiar to some Catholics, the author reminds us of the central importance of human dignity, solidarity and the common good, and explains the Catholic position on the transcendent character of the human person, the nature and limits of property, and the role of the state in economic affairs. Finally, he notes that in Catholic Social Teachings no person is expendable and all are obliged to make a "preferential option" for the poor.
Building on these cornerstone positions and principles, Massaro's analysis of Welfare Reform then moves to a series of more specific arguments and "middle axioms" - those concrete and usually controversial proposals seeking to apply the basic insights of Catholic Social Thought to the messy and tricky calculus of public policy. Here, in chapters five through nine, Massaro offers the analysis and arguments of the US Bishops, suggests a number of "guidelines for social policy," and lays out several arguments about practical issues.
Still, the most interesting and informative section of Massaro's analysis, comes with his description of the historical context of U.S. welfare policy and the specific shape and content of the "Personal Responsibility Act." For here he gives us an understanding of the underlying tension between the priorities of Catholic Social Teachings and American Social Policy towards the poor, a tension which responsible American Catholics should find both disturbing and challenging.
Tracing American social policies toward the poor back to English poor laws and Puritan attitudes about the importance of work and self-reliance, Massaro argues that while our predecessors were concerned about their impoverished neighbors, they tended to use disincentives of shame and stigma to discourage the poor from seeking relief or going on the "dole." "The American version of individualism and a distinctive philosophy of economic liberalism ... reinforced the English tendency for poor relief to serve as a system to denigrate the poor, to draw moral boundaries between worthy and unworthy, and to enforce a rigorous work ethic. The Puritan ethos ... gave rise to a gospel of self-help' which so emphasizes personal responsibility that it eclipses other social values such as solidarity and compassion, which support public assistance efforts." (p.64)
As a result of these attitudes the US has lagged far behind other industrial democracies in its commitment to providing basic entitlements for those in need, preferring instead to offer occasional and two-tiered responses which treated those without access to work or insurance as undeserving second class citizens. Indeed, as Massaro sees it, it was only the desperate situation of the depression that led the nation to renegotiate a more favorable social contract with the poor, a contract which seems to be dissolving in a post-industrial society where the security of many workers is increasingly tenuous and where the gap between the haves and the have-nots is reaching an all-time high. This, according to Massaro, is a moment to choose whether we will follow the Gospel of "self-help" or the Gospel of love.