Print Edition: Feb. 22, 2015
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BY Omar Gutierrez
Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate has done nothing if it hasn’t at least caused Catholics to talk about what Catholic social teaching actually says.
In this election, both sides are claiming the mantel of the social doctrine. On one hand, there is the call for maintaining or increasing spending on assistance programs for the poor. This approach appeals to the principle of solidarity, the idea that we have a moral obligation to care for our poor brother.
On the other hand, the effort to cut spending hopes to deal with debt that suppresses economic growth. This approach appeals to subsidiarity, the principle that leans away from the "social assistance state." It is subsidiarity to which Paul Ryan has appealed in defending his budget plan as he seeks to decentralize social assistance from the federal government.
The Church’s social teaching argues both for the critical role people can play in helping the poor as well as allowing room for solutions that can arise from individual, private, religious and nonprofit initiatives. There is an initiative that captures this balanced view, and it is changing people’s lives.
The Family Independence Initiative (FII) was founded by Maurice Lim Miller in 2001. After years of experience working with the poor and seeing little to show for it, Miller thought to go in a different direction.
Instead of presuming that the poor cannot help themselves, why not give them the tools and the parameters that make self-improvement possible?
Instead of just giving the working poor money, why not give families a sense of control over their own lives?
Here’s how the Family Independence Initiative works: Each family enrolls in a cohort of six to eight families and is asked to lay out goals that might move their lives forward. The goals can include getting a GED, a college degree, being clear from debt or saving money for a house.
Then each family is given a computer and access to an online tracking system by which they can track things like income, health, education, debt and involvement in the community. All in all, there are around 230 unique data points.
For meeting and sharing with FII the progress they make, for instance better grades for a child at school or a good checkup at the doctor’s office, families can earn up to $200 a month. Every three months, FII staff meets with the family to verify the data with supporting material like pay stubs and report cards.
Perhaps for the first time, the families become conscious of their goals and receive help in setting up a strategy for achieving and tracking their own progress.
This plays into another benefit of the Family Independence Initiative. As a non-governmental entity, it avoids the cost of expensive studies or case workers in order to collect data. Here, all the data is collected by the participants themselves and monitored by staff employed by FII. It is cheaper than other assistance efforts and certainly cheaper than government-run programs.
Most important, FII staff are not allowed to help the families with advice for better results or even give warnings about bad choices. In fact, some staff were fired for offering advice. The philosophy is that the impoverished families have to be in control over their own lives and receive nothing but the encouragement to aim high, access to incentive-based resources and the tools by which they track their progress. And progress they have.
As The New York Times reported, the initial 25 families in California had, after two years, increased their household income by 27% on average, excluding the funds they got from Family Independence Initiative.
After three years, and now out of FII, the average income had increased by 40%. In San Francisco, close to a third of the families started side businesses, and a quarter got off of government assistance for housing, thus saving the state money.
The families also achieved a 240% increase in savings. Poor families, who could now track the improvements in their lives, were taking control of their financial futures and realizing that they were not powerless after all.
Miller consciously wanted to battle the societal presumption that the poor are incapable of helping themselves. This presumption suggests that the best society can do for the poor is relieve their suffering. But giving money to someone without hope tends to teach dependence. FII changes that paradigm.
A key cause of this change is the network of families. The families had to meet together every month to discuss their goals, their advancements and their failures.
When it was first attempted in 2001, this proved difficult, but the participants found that fellowship within the cohort of families laid the foundation for their collective success.
FII connects families with other families who have similar struggles but perhaps very different ethnic backgrounds. Families would help each other rewrite résumés, get appointments with creditors and otherwise work their own connections for their own benefit.
Thus the poor were receiving aid, subsidium, to help themselves, which is the very definition of subsidiarity. At the same time, FII was fostering solidarity amongst the families and was providing the support for real change and societal progress.
The participants in FII witnessed the success of other peer families and discovered hope. The examples from each other’s triumphs and mistakes were critical to everyone’s progress.
All of this fits in perfectly well with Catholic social teaching, which sees an important role for society in helping to alleviate poverty, while at the same time empowering the poor to unlock the great potential they have within.
This interior energy and potential for every human person is one of the keys to Catholic social teaching, and Catholics can help these sorts of initiatives by financial support, education and by better understanding the connection between subsidiarity and solidarity.
Pope Benedict XVI writes in Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), "By considering reciprocity as the heart of what it is to be a human being, subsidiarity is the most effective antidote against any form of all-encompassing welfare state."
Yet the Holy Father is quick to note: "The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need."
This initiative is an example of promoting both principles. It is an example of thinking outside the box and hopefully outside the well-worn patterns of political debate as well.
If subsidiarity and solidarity are to be linked in the Catholic imagination, we need initiatives like FII to transform the teaching from theory to the concrete.
Perhaps, then, a robust debate about social teaching and the role of subsidiarity in light of Paul Ryan’s presence in the race can foster more and better solutions to our nation’s ills, but, more importantly, better help the poor we are obliged to serve.
Omar Gutierrez works for the Diocese of Omaha, Nebraska.
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