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People of all backgrounds and occupations – be they theologians, ministers, politicians, or social service workers – all agree an obligation exists to aid the poor. Too often, however, the debate is framed as if there are two sides: those who want to help the poor and those who do not. This, of course, is a false distinction.

The true debate about the welfare state and welfare reform measures focuses on the question, "How should we care for the poor?" – or more specifically, "Who should care for the poor?"

There are several options. Those who advocate an expanded role for state welfare take what is often referred to as the "bold state" approach. The state, in their minds, should continue to expand its influence on society. Government does not merely exist to enforce contracts or ensure rights; instead, it should seek to improve society. In this conception, the government should collect money through taxes, make decisions regarding who should receive financial support, distribute money, and run the various social service programs. In caring for the poor, however, the "bold state" approach tends to promote mediocrity in the workplace, quashes individual initiative, suppresses personal responsibility and charity, and knows no limits. In the end, it becomes a system that can no longer sustain itself.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum are those who take the "no state" approach. They believe in a strictly limited role for the government, trusting that the free market will provide what society needs. In this conception, the government should work to maintain open markets, but should do little else. The problem of the "no state" approach, however, is that some will fall through the cracks of purely market-driven services.

However, there is an alternative. In Catholic theology, it is referred to as the principle of subsidiarity. In Reformed Protestant theology, it is called sphere sovereignty, a term used by the Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper. Basically, the idea is that it is morally dangerous to seize the authority and responsibility belonging to an individual and assign it to a group. Furthermore, it is morally wrong to seize the authority and responsibility that belongs to a small group and assign it to a larger group.

To put this concept to work in caring for the poor, we would say that the smallest unit possible must be responsible for meeting the needs of the poor. This is far from the "bold state" approach, which assigns responsibility for the poor to the state without considering other, smaller groups that ought to be providing care. But it is also not quite the "no state" approach which would not allow the state to play any role at all.

Let me put this in practical terms. If I am poor, to whom should I look for relief? I would argue that the first person responsible for me is me. Christian theology teaches that despite our fallen nature, we remain creatures made in the image of God. Despite our flaws, we retain our abilities to reason and to creatively engage creation.

But if, for one or more reasons, I am unable to meet my needs, should I then look to the state? The principle of subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty would suggest that the smallest group possible should care for my needs. Therefore, in most cases, this responsibility would rest with my family. Welfare, properly understood, begins here. If my brother were poor, I dare not think that the government must care for him and that I bear no responsibility.

If my family were unable to meet my needs, the next smallest circle would be my friends or my church. Too many churches, however, have relinquished their responsibility for caring for the poor. In the midst of the 1996 debate about welfare reform in the United States, a media representative asked a member of the clergy for his reaction to those who argued for a smaller role for the government and a larger role for churches in caring for the poor. His response was, "Why should we have to do the government’s job?" What a sad but revealing comment!

Finally, if all other groups and organizations fail, then the state must provide some sort of safety net for those who are not assisted by anyone else. In times of crisis, it may be necessary for the government to play a more active role, but politicians must remember that even here, the government’s role is only temporary. The question is not, "What can the government do?" The more appropriate question is, "What should the government do?" The answer must be that the government should not do what we ourselves can do, nor what our families, our churches, and our communities are able to do.

When the principle of subsidiarity or sphere sovereignty is lost to a society, we fail to take responsibility for ourselves. We fail to see our responsibilities within our families, churches, and communities. The church fails in its calling to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. As a result, we are all less than what God created us to be.

Rev. Gerald Zandstra, an ordained pastor in the Christian Reformed Church in North America, is a senior fellow at the Acton Institute.