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This welfare edition of Religion & Liberty has begun to state clearly the argument that the solutions to the current welfare crisis rest not with government but with communities. Government is compassion’s least able practitioner.

We have critiqued the welfare state and have gone to great lengths to show its faults. Although criticism is often useful, it is never enough. Those who support welfare reform fail in their mission if they merely criticize the welfare state, dismantle it, and leave it at that. The more difficult part of our journey is mobilizing the thousands of Americans who can give of their time, material resources and love. The private sector needs to be up to the task of replacing the welfare bureaucracy that now exists.

Essential to this welfare revolution is that we first change our thinking about poverty and compassion. A debilitating welfare culture coexists with the welfare state. Many of us have grown accustomed to viewing poverty and compassion narrowly. Eventually, we must face not just minor reform, but the overturning of the old paradigm. Those working in the private sector, to whom new responsibilities will fall, must begin to adopt the following three perspectives:

First, we can no longer believe that the call of compassion is satisfied by simply writing a check. The poor are asking for much more than our money. We must begin to make the more difficult sacrifices of our time, energy and talents. We must go to the poor where they live and enter into their poverty in order to help them rise above it. In our efforts to help those suffering the effects of poverty, dollars may be the least important consideration.

Another attitude that must change is our tendency to believe that as individuals we cannot make a meaningful contribution. When faced with a homeless person, the temptation is to think “What could I, with my limited experience and resources, do?” We therefore turn to simply giving money. We need to rethink this response and consider other ways we can contribute; perhaps volunteering at a private shelter, or maybe starting a shelter where there is none, or even having a conversation with a homeless person, as a person, and ask them what they truly need. This is the more radical approach because it requires that we listen to the poor and allow them to become part of the solution — not just the target of our pity.

A third attitude we must adopt is that we no longer view the poor as incapable. One of the most egregious faults of current government programs is the hidden assumption that the poor will always remain poor. While admitting that some people suffer from more than the effects of poverty which prevent them from becoming productive members of society, many of those receiving government assistance can contribute to the elevation of their standard of living. The poor themselves have to be a part of the solution to their own problems. Requiring some level of participation and responsibility on the part of individuals will offer the opportunity for more than dollars or a job, it will offer the opportunity for self-esteem.

This is the beauty of the principle of subsidiarity: it advises us to start one person at a time, one family at a time, dealing with whoever is nearest to us. The poor will be restored to wholeness only through transforming lives and families, not by temporarily alleviating their material poverty through impersonal government programs.

Rev. Robert A. Sirico received his Master of Divinity degree from the Catholic University of America following undergraduate study at the University of Southern California and the University of London.  During his studies and early ministry, he experienced a growing concern over the lack of training religious studies students receive in fundamental economic principles, leaving them poorly equipped to understand and address today's social problems.  As a result of these concerns, Fr. Sirico co-founded the Acton Institute with Kris Alan Mauren in 1990.