“The Path to Prosperity” and Biblical Principles for Welfare Reform, Part 2

Posted on March 15, 2013 by

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In a comment to a post I made yesterday, Jeff Haymond asked “Can you speak to what the biblical vision would be and why Representative Ryan’s proposal has at least parts that fit that vision?“. I’d like to respond to Jeff’s first question by summarizing welfare reform architect Lawrence Mead’s From Prophecy to Charity: How to Help the Poor[i] pages 54-63 and address his second question by looking more closely at the proposal.

New Testament teaching helping the poor is consistent with the Old Testament which taught generosity toward the poor combined with well-defined private and community obligations. New Testament teaching on the subject may be summarized around three concepts.

When Christ is depicted helping an individual, the person usually asks for help. There is no recognized condition where a person is entitled help, but people are always helped when they ask. Jesus helps people in practical concrete ways without questioning whether they need help. He commands that they participate in overcoming their problem and that they evidence faith. “[T]he poor are never passive victims who have no responsibility for themselves” (Mead, p. 57). This is the principle of sustenance.

Second is the notion of reciprocity. In addition to some material deprivation, the poor are seen as needing to be restored to community. “It requires effort by both the society and the poor themselves” (Mead, p. 58). Poverty in Christ’s day was frequently tied some disease. After healing the person was to be restored to community through ritual connected to the healing. “The key to Jesus’ ministry is not redistribution, but relationship” (Mead, p. 60). We are not to simply provide material help to the poor, but to work to help their return to mainstream society and to expect them to fulfill community obligations.

“[I]n the biblical vision, standards for good behavior – what the Bible calls the “law” – are maintained” (Mead, p. 61). Simply because one is relatively poor is not a reason to be released from normal societal expectations. People, rich and poor, are expected to be contributing members of society. The Bible “… specifically affirm[s] the obligation to work …” (Mead, p. 61). By working people can establish some degree of autonomy.

While recognizing the detail of the proposal will be developed in Committee, The Path to Prosperity: A Responsible Balanced Budget does indicate a desire to reform welfare in a manner similar to 1996’s Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. Part of the House’s current proposal is to undo President Obama’s attempt to nullify one of the 1996’s provision. The “attacked” provision stipulates work requirements with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The provision is consistent with autonomy. “The administration, in contravention to current law, has claimed authority to waive the work requirements—and all other requirements—of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. This budget rescinds any authority the administration thinks it has to provide for waivers of the work requirement of the TANF program. It assumes that President Clinton and the Republican majority at the time were correct in requiring robust work requirements for the TANF program—which led to the largest sustained reduction in child poverty since the onset of the ‘Great Society’“ (Ryan, p. 33).

The Path says: “One way to secure the Medicaid benefit is by converting the federal share of Medicaid spending into an allotment tailored to meet each state’s needs, indexed for inflation and population growth. Such a reform would end the misguided one-size-fits-all approach that has tied the hands of state governments. … The budget resolution proposes to transform Medicaid from an open-ended entitlement into a block-granted program … Medicaid recipients, like all other Americans, deserve to choose their own doctors and make their own health-care decisions, instead of having Washington make those decisions for them” (Ryan, p. 31). More decentralization is closer to the individualized care the principle of sustenance requires.

Our current law creates massive disincentive to work and become not only autonomous, but also reciprocate by creating wealth to return to one’s community. The high implicit tax rates in our current welfare system make it very difficult to increase earned reportable income. “This budget retools federal aid to low-income families in two ways. First, it eliminates the incentive for states to sign up as many recipients as possible. After employment has recovered, it converts SNAP into a block grant, indexed for inflation and eligibility. This reform allows states to tailor their programs to their recipients’ needs. And it encourages states to help recipients find work. Second, it calls for time limits and work requirements. It suggests, however, that the federal government implement these reforms gradually to give states and recipients time to adjust.” “By allowing states more flexibility, we can allow states to design their programs to smooth implicit marginal tax rates and ensure individuals aren’t punished by the federal government when they take steps to improve their lives.” (Ryan, p 33).

While the 2014 budget will not be the House’s proposal, the proposal does carry elements that are closer to the biblical vision.


[i] This section in From Prophecy to Charity is based on John D. Mason, “Biblical Teaching and Assisting the Poor,” Transformation 4, no. 2(April 1987): 1-14.

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