Why Does This Topic Matter: Thinking About the Big Issues

Issues of continuing relevance

This page describes some of the discussions that the Catholic Charities and Social Security website can generate in the classroom.

What role should federal, state and local governments play in ensuring the economic well-being of the people they represent?

The question of the government role in the public welfare is one that has been debated throughout U.S. History and which is, at the moment, highly relevant given the current economic situation. Here, the Catholic perspective is illuminated through NCCC meeting minutes, bulletins, memoranda, and correspondence. Catholic charity leaders and administrators had been ministering to those in need for several decades and had religiously-influenced ideas about obligations to the poor, as well as practical experience in ministering to them. As the materials on this site suggest, Catholic charity leaders believed that it was the individual's obligation to assist those in need around them, and they constructed a network of institutions to do just this. At the same time, as the effects of the Depression on Americans grew increasingly apparent, the NCCC leadership realized that addressing the needs of the expanding poor population would require resources beyond their means. As the Federal government sought to address the needs of the poor, the NCCC leadership sought to work with officials and bureaucrats in ways that they felt would best meet the needs of members of their communities.

Should federal funding be extended to all forms of social welfare1? For example: aid to children and mothers, to the elderly, to the homeless, to the sick, to the unemployed? Do certain forms of social welfare warrant funding more than others? Greater amounts of funding? Which? What amounts?

NCCC leaders believed that assisting those in need was part of the Catholic charity mission, but their beliefs and experiences caused them to place more emphasis in certain areas than others. First, aid to and care of children was heavily emphasized due to the emphasis on the family as the most significant unit of the social structure, a belief reinforced by Pope Leo XIII. This was also due to their historical experience caring for children and recognizing that Catholic children needed to be imparted with the teachings of the church in a religiously plural and secular society if they were going to grow up to be practicing Catholics. Hence, they were particularly aggressive in making their views on aspects of the Social Security legislation known to members of Congress and drafters of the bill.

What specific authority should a single bureau hold over the development of a unified national welfare program, federal, state, municipal?

As the documents on this site suggest, NCCC leaders understood that government involvement in relief efforts could reach many of the desperately needy throughout the country. Their ideas about how and to whom resources should be distributed, however, were distinct and rooted in their beliefs and experiences. NCCC leaders believed, for example, in the idea of subsidiarity, that matters should be managed by the least centralized authority competent to manage the situation as possible. By extension, the most central authority should perform only those tasks which cannot be performed at the most local and least centralized level. But they themselves had formed from local charitable organizations into a national organization in 1910, in order to better coordinate activities, share information, and standardize practices, so the question of which least centralized structure performed what most competently was not so simple. By the time the Depression struck and measures were being contemplated for addressing it, NCCC members had taken the position that the older public relief system should be abolished and there should be a unified system of public welfare that involved federal, state and local structures and that it should be unified administratively and financially.

Should work be tied to economic assistance administered by federal, state and local governments?

NCCC leaders felt strongly that the distribution of economic relief should be separated from public employment programs, as they didn't think the state should be competing with private business or hiring based only on need. They believed that hiring based solely on need would erode work quality and damage the economic system because the workers would be drawn away from private business.

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1Social welfare as used here is defined in accordance with the Columbia Encyclopedia: "organized provision of educational, cultural, medical, and financial assistance to the needy." Social welfare measures may include any of the following: the care of destitute adults; the treatment of the mentally ill; the care of destitute, neglected, and delinquent children; the care and relief of the sick or handicapped; the care and relief of needy families; and supervisory, educational, and constructive activity, especially for the young.

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