A candidate for the presidency, in a recent interview, remarked that he wasn’t “concerned about the very poor” because there is a sufficient “safety net” that will help them in their need.
One can debate long into the night the question of the best public policies to address the problem of poverty in the United States. There are people of good will who stressfree market solutions, such as policies that emphasize education and economic opportunity. There are others of good will who emphasize the need for private charity to address the needs of poor people. And there are others who believe that the problem requires increased spending by local, state or federal government programs. All of these competing policy proposals are open for legitimate discussion and argument, and to a great extent they define the differences between conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats. Good, open political debate about these matters is a good thing.
But one thing that cannot be part of the discussion is a lack of concern about poor people, no matter how good the “safety net” may be. Note that I do not say “the poor”, as if a person’s income level was their defining characteristic or the entirety of their identity. We are not talking about an abstract concept. We are talking about human persons who are in economic need. We can never lose sight of that reality.
The proper approach here is not just to debate policies, but to develop a particular virtue — solidarity. This is a recognition that we are all linked to each other in a fundamental relationship based on being made in the image and likeness of God. It is a state of mind that impels us to be concerned deeply about the well-being not just of groups of people or nations, but with every single individual.
Here’s what Pope John Paul II said in Solicitudo Rei Socialis:
It is above all a question of interdependence, sensed as a system determining relationships in the contemporary world, in its economic, cultural, political and religious elements, and accepted as a moral category. When interdependence becomes recognized in this way, the correlative response as a moral and social attitude, as a “virtue,” is solidarity. This then is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all. This determination is based on the solid conviction that what is hindering full development is that desire for profit and that thirst for power already mentioned. These attitudes and “structures of sin” are only conquered – presupposing the help of divine grace – by a diametrically opposed attitude: a commitment to the good of one’s neighbor with the readiness, in the gospel sense, to “lose oneself” for the sake of the other instead of exploiting him, and to “serve him” instead of oppressing him for one’s own advantage.
I am sure that the candidate did not mean to consign poor people to a perpetual underclass status. But when we are looking for leadership in our nation, perhaps the debate could be elevated by consulting Catholic social teaching, which is a rich and robust approach to economic and social problems. It is not too abstract or complex for politicians to understand and explain.
And it could lead to a very positive development — where we can honestly debate policy alternatives, while still stressing our love and concern for people who are in economic distress.