The fire department that parked their engines alongside a burning house in Tennessee should teach us a lesson. A town official on his cell phone from the golf course had ordered the firemen on the scene to stand-by while the house burned down because a $75 surcharge had not yet been paid. This decision of the fire department has been praised by Glenn Beck, who said that helping those who have not paid such fees only encourages “sponging” off the rest of society. Ayn Rand could not have said it better.
I don’t think letting the house burn would be the reaction of most Catholics. We take seriously the responsibility to be “our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper.” On the premise that the United States is a democracy, we are bound to inject our values of neighborly care into public policy. This Catholic response to Gospel values was recently put into a legislative proposal made by Catholic Charities of the USA (CCUSA). Rather than just waiting for legislation to be proposed by Washington politicians, CCUSA has drafted its own version of far-ranging reform of social service policy in the United States. Entitled, the “National Opportunity and Community Renewal Act,” this is designed to radically recast federal, state and local poverty programs. On September 28, while the CCUSA was still meeting in Washington, the bill was introduced into the Senate by Robert P. Casey, (D-Pa.), and in the House by James McGovern, (D-Mass.).
At first blush, there is little connection between this proposed legislation and the burning house in Tennessee. However, by analogy it might be said that the current patchwork social safety net is like the fire engine parked alongside a burning house. Bureaucracy has swallowed up much of the innovation and initiative in the design and delivery of social services. People at the front lines who see a better way of remedying abuses are often held back by bureaucratic rules that put the “bottom line” ahead of human need. We all need accountability and efficiency, but in many instances these rules have become impediments to the betterment of the people they are supposed to be helping.
The new legislation rethinks social service from the ground-up. The person who is to be helped is the center of attention while various agencies responsible for services coordinate their efforts around a vision of what alternatives best resolve particular human needs. They are to cooperate with the focus on the persons being helped. The local case worker tells the bureaucracy of the Housing Authority, the school district, the medical services, the family counseling what is needed for specific cases, rather than the other way around. This policy renewal is intended to restructure social services. No more cut off of subsidized housing as soon as the client starts a new job or goes to school. Many persons have reasoned that if they lose their apartment or Medicaid coverage because they go back to work, then why go back to work? This legislation proposed by Catholic Charities is intended to eliminate such contradictions and Catch-22 dilemmas of the current system.
This Catholic approach to the woes of excessive bureaucracy is not the only one today, however it contrasts mightily with the kind of sweeping condemnations that come from libertarians, anarchists and the Tea Party. The Tea-publican Party of today, for instance, is flooding the airwaves with a message that the way to rid ourselves of bureaucracy is to rid ourselves of government. Their alternative is to “privatize” charity and remake social services into commercial arrangements. You would get social security funds only if you had invested wisely in the stock market – but if the market crashed again and you lost your financial security after 50 years of work, too bad for you! Like the fire department that allows a man’s home to go up in flames because the ledger does not show that he paid $75, this approach would allow people’s lives to go up in flames.
This incident shows the wisdom of universal coverage focused on real needs, not only in fire protection, but in social security, health insurance, environmental protection, etc. Rather than less government, we need what the CCUSA calls for – wise government.