Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Welfare reform and catholic social policy: when and how should the bishops' speak out?

This week legislation to extend compulsory income management - quarantining of half of welfare benefits to ensure it is spent on food, rent and other basics - finally passed the Senate. 

It was supported by all of the parties - except the party dubbed anti-Christians this week by Cardinal Pell, the Greens.  Yet it has been condemned by catholic welfare agencies such as Vinnies and more importantly, by Bishop Saunders on behalf of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Commission.

Over in the US there is an interesting debate going on about the role and authority of bishops vs lay catholic organizations when it comes to matters of public policy in the context of the recent health care debate.  I do think the underlying issue, about the role of bishops when it comes to prudential judgments in the areas of the social teachings of the Church, is an important one that requires close scrutiny. 

Compulsory income management of welfare payments to the whole of the Northern Territory provides an excellent case study in the Australian context. 

The role of bishops on social teaching

The role of bishops and the Church when it comes to social teaching has always been fraught.  On the one hand it is quite clear, as emphasised by Gaudium et Spes, Centesimus Annus and many other documents, that the primary role in relation to the enactment of laws for the common good belongs to the laity. 

The Church espouses principles to guide lawmakers - but it does not have the power to propose definitive solutions to policy issues: Pope John Paul II wrote that the Church “is not entitled to express preferences for this or that institutional or constitutional solution,” nor to “pass definitive judgments” on specific policy options, “since this does not fall per se within the Magisterium’s specific domain. 

So when bishops advocate for this or that policy option, they are not, it would seem, doing so with magisterial authority.

What they can do however, and with authority, is pass judgments on whether or not on whether an action by government is moral or immoral. 

It is a fine line, but an important one.

When should the bishops' make such rulings?

It is one thing for bishops to point out the lines of Catholic social policy, and urge respect for the individual's dignity and rights, as Bishop Saunders has done on this particular legislation - that's a legitimate reminder of the principles legislators must consider when acting.  It is quite another though to go on, as he does, and essentially conclude that this particular legislation is paternalistic, discriminatory and won't solve the real problem.

Because a strong, legitimate case for income management as one of a suite of policies to address the problems caused by welfare dependency, particularly in dysfunctional Indigenous communities, can in fact be made.  And where good people working from the same principles can come to different prudential judgments, then one must really consider seriously whether and when the bishops should speak up.  There will be cases which justify it.  But if the Church really wants the laity to be active in the public square, intervention by the bishops should surely be rare.

Is income management a case that justifies such a voicing of concerns?

Indigenous policy is certainly Australia's single most pressing social policy issue, and so it is right for the bishops to be concerned about it and focusing our attention on it.  But is also the area where there is virtually no real evidence base for what works and what doesn't - an area where pretty much all we have is a litany of policy failure.  So there is a strong case for trying new approaches.

Australia's moves down the path of welfare conditionality  - enforcing 'mutual obligations' - have generally shown quite strong positive results.  And income management isn't totally new in the social policy world - it reflects ideas such as the longstanding and successful US food stamp program for example.

But applying any policy to a new environment needs a considerable amount of time to be in place in order to be assessed properly for its effectiveness.  There are always teething problems that need to be sorted out.  The early evidence from income management trials across Australia, as well as from the Northern Territory Intervention did show up some problems in implementation - and the new legislation has made a number of important changes in the light of that.  But overall, the evidence for its reception and effect is generally pretty positive.  So why all the concern?

The case for income management

No one - or at least no one who has visited one - will dispute the facts about the horrific situation in many welfare dependent Indigenous communities.  Regardless of the causes, the reality is stark.  The argument is what to do about it. 

Do we wait for Indigenous communities and individuals to start taking control of their lives, or do we have a duty to act?

Of course the ideal, consistent with the principle of subsidiarity, is that the individual, family and local community to manage their lives.  But it is not an unqualified principle, and by providing welfare payments, the Government is actually providing the means by which communities can continue on a path to destruction.  The argument is that it really isn't appropriate to simply allow people to continue to spend taxpayers dollars on alcohol, drugs and gambling while their children starve.

As Minister Jenny Macklin pointed out in an interview with the ABC:

"I don't think there's any human dignity in your children not going to school, not having a chance to be well fed. This is all about providing an additional tool to help families who are needing that extra support to make sure that they get their finances in order, to make sure that their children are not neglected, to make sure that their children do go to school. We've got more than 2,000 children not even enrolled to go to school in the Northern Territory. Thousands of children not attending regularly and that's got to change. It's got to change so that those children have a better chance to get a decent education and then a decent job. I really just can't see the logic in saying that a life on welfare is good for anyone."

The second leg of the bishop's argument is essentially that welfare reform targets the individual, whereas what is needed are structural solutions.  Noel Pearson offers a rebuttal of this line in today's Australian.  The welfare safety net, he argues, is a civilising achievement.  But making it conditional, using it as a tool for behaviour change, is essential because welfare dependency and the ills it leads to have both structural and behavioural causes and effects.  Ignoring individual behaviour in favour of addressing only structural issues, he suggests, means that when structural change does occur, individuals will not be able to take up the opportunities created.

The intricacies of this debate illustrate I think, the problematic approach to the social teaching of the Church by which principles are regularly converted into specific policy solutions and then put forward as if those solutions were in fact Church teaching.   It is dangerous, potentially misleading, and ultimately harmful to the cause of good public policy and Catholic engagement in the public square.

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