Why Christians Should Support the Safety Net
How can we as a society best care for vulnerable children and families? And is this a task delegated to government, the Church, or other civil society institutions?
In this current political moment, the social safety net – the vast network of government-run programs designed to ensure that families’ basic needs are met – sits at the intersection of these questions. The Trump administration’s proposed federal budget would make dramatic cuts to many of the programs and services that currently serve millions of low-income Americans. The proposed budget cuts have again highlighted the increasingly polarized and contentious nature of the safety net debate, and for Christians in particular, this ought to be troublesome.
Through my work at the Center for Public Justice, a Christian, non-partisan public policy and civic education organization, I frequently encounter Christian millennials committed to serving the vulnerable in their communities. However, for many, their care for the poor is limited to tangible acts of mercy through their church or parachurch ministries. They have not thought about their civic responsibility to their neighbors, nor have they considered what, if any, role government has in addressing the systemic issues that contribute to intractable poverty.
“If the Church would just do the Church’s job, then we wouldn’t need government’s involvement” is a common refrain from some Evangelicals attentive to the needs of the poor but skeptical of government’s role. While often well-intentioned, this is an inadequate response. And as a result, the right is characterized as heartless and self-interested, while the left is accused of wasting taxpayer funds on something government shouldn’t be involved with in the first place.
When the government is cast as either the whole problem or the whole solution, we lose sight of what’s most important: the hurting and vulnerable. We lose the ability to see that more often than not, efforts on both the right and left are guided by a similar norm: that our society should respond to the needs of vulnerable citizens and promote opportunity and flourishing for all Americans. For Christians, this view is rooted in the belief that every person is created in the image of God and possesses inherent worth that we should honor.
A public justice framework – one that considers both the role of government and of civil society institutions – suggests that a wide variety of mediating structures, including government, have unique sets of responsibilities in response to the poor. Therefore, a perspective that the Church, or more broadly civil society, has a critical role to play in addressing poverty is not incompatible, but necessary, with one that affirms government’s involvement. There is indeed a way to love our neighbors through politics.
The social safety net is the most visible governmental response to the poor. While not perfect, government programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), have lifted millions of Americans out of poverty. The federal government’s depth of resources, constancy, and capacity allow it to respond to the needs of the poor in ways that civil society on its own simply cannot. For example, WIC, which has generally received bipartisan support for decades, serves over seven million pregnant and postpartum women, infants, and children through age five. The proposed budget would cut WIC funding by $200 million and significantly reduce the number of families able to receive this support. Even the best intentioned faith community cannot coordinate and deliver services on a scale comparable to that of programs like WIC. Rural communities know perhaps more than others that resources are often scarce where need is highest, which makes the government’s consistency a vital component of an effective social safety net.
This is not to discredit the role of the Church and other civil society institutions. They provide essential resources that government cannot, including social capital, moral and spiritual formation, and personal support and connections. For that reason, the contributions made by robust civil society institutions are vital to the formation of holistic responses to poverty in our communities. It is institutions rooted in place – local schools, places of worship, service-oriented nonprofits – that know the unique needs of their community best and government should make room for them to thrive.
But on its own, this is not enough to adequately address the immense need in our country. Instead a “both-and” approach is needed—one that recognizes that both government and civil society make distinct and necessary contributions. A strong social safety net should be championed by service-minded Christians as one important avenue through which to love our neighbors. While there is room to reexamine and strengthen programs within the social safety net, we must agree that it ought to exist in the first place.
Katie Thompson is the Program Director and Editor of Shared Justice, an online publication for young adults published by the Center for Public Justice. She is a co-author of Unleashing Opportunity: Why Escaping Poverty Requires a Shared Vision of Justice.