Howard Husock asks what part the government might play in some of our contemporary social problems.
Earlier this year, the Washington Post carried a story in which Citibank was accused of “poor shaming.” The charge was leveled against the bank, which itself had been a beneficiary of a 2008 taxpayer bailout, because it offered advice to customers with small bank accounts about how to save money. The advice included ideas like making coffee at home rather than buying it on the go, discovering leftovers, and sometimes walking rather than taking a taxi. One generation’s learning to cut corners is another’s “poor shaming” of someone who might think twice about boiling some hot water instead of spending $7 on a Benti-Venti-Menti lifestyle.
“Humiliating the poor” gets trotted out whenever the occasional effort is made to offer economic advice to the less affluent or ideas surface about tying social benefits to certain behaviors. It was heard when Kansas sought to ban welfare recipients from using benefits to buy alcohol or tobacco, or when Missouri wanted to prohibit benefits going for junk food like soda. The canard was on full display during the Clinton administration’s effort at welfare reform, especially the push for connecting welfare to workfare.
Howard Husock gets behind some of these ideas in his interesting new book, Who Killed Civil Society? The Rise of Big Government and the Decline of Bourgeois Norms (NY: Encounter, 2019). Because it’s not explicitly directed at a “social justice,” much less a Catholic social thought audience, its ideas might not get the attention they merit. That’s why I want to discuss the book here.
Husock’s key insight is the inculcation of behavioral norms, which was once an integral element of civil society’s work with the poor and disadvantaged, became sidelined when the focus of helping the poor and disadvantaged shifted from private action to government agencies. He starts with the story of his own orphaned father in Depression-era Philadelphia. Mrs. Sternberger, a volunteer with the Juvenile Aid Society who regularly visited Husock’s father, was just as interested in his father’s values as his food. Husock quotes Sternberger from the records of a JAS meeting: “’I believe that children are willing and anxious to become independent and if we can get them young enough they can get a very normal attitude towards life and its responsibilities.’” That very commonsense proposition was, of course, “verified” by social scientists in 2013 when the liberal Brookings Institution discovered “the ‘cure’ for poverty that Mrs. Sternberger would have known intuitively: finish high school, get a job, and get married before you have babies.”
This book is about social policy, not moral norms per se, but it does show their coherence. There are, of course, different challenges today: some higher education appears to be increasingly needed by everybody and transition from school-to-job is harder. But the basic insights: a high school diploma as the absolute floor, starting to work, and then marriage and then family was and remains not just the responsible thing to do, but the escalator to upward social mobility. Anybody who doubts that need only look at the hypocrisy of our chattering elites: while they espouse lifestyle libertinism for everyone, their own marriage and mating practices are pretty traditional. They rarely drink from the toxic spring they want to offer everybody else.
I recommend reading Husock’s whole book, which chronicles the gradual transition in focus on the poor from private-based charity with norms to government-driven programs without them. Most of the book traces the gradual “governmentalization” of aid to the poor from the 1850s to today. While it’s all an interesting read (and the book, at 160 pages, is remarkably compact), if you don’t read it all, at least read Chapter 1 and the conclusion. They are the heart of the book.
“In my father’s time, it was acknowledged that bourgeois norms were an essential key to upward mobility, or at least to a healthy, stable life, not just for children in foster care but for the poor in general, for immigrants, and for all those grappling with the uncertainties of an industrial economy. … The implicit message was that if they adopted the right values and habits, those who were ‘at risk’ in contemporary parlance, could thrive chiefly (though not exclusively) through their own effort” (p. 6).
Self-sufficiency is an underappreciated value. No man is, of course, an island, but standing on one’s own feet is also part of adulthood. That also means self-reliance amid adversity, virtues unlikely to be appreciated in a culture where suffering is regarded as an unmitigated evil and everybody gets a medal just for showing up and breathing. Self-sufficiency is also probably a victim of our underappreciation of subsidiarity: a huge bureaucracy whose raison d’être is “serving the poor” has little incentive to put itself out of business by truly encouraging self-sufficiency.
Catholic social thought would, of course, recognize that social problems sometimes become too big to be handled by private initiative, and the great incentive to expanding governmental reach in poverty programs was the enormous dislocation of the Great Depression. That said, subsidiarity remains the acid test of responsible social efforts, including social programs: can this initiative be done, or at least shared, at a lower level? Unless that criterion is rigorously applied, the temptation to power and the urge to self-preservation can take over, raising the question posed above: why would a huge and well-heeled bureaucracy really want to be so “successful” as not even to eliminate but just to reduce itself? The mark of bureaucratic failure is a flat-line budget.
Which leads us to the second phenomenon Husock discusses: the transition of working with the poor from prevention to remediation. Norm-based social intervention, like Mrs. Sternberger’s, was prevention-focused: keep kids out of trouble, not just big trouble but even the little things that lead to bigger ones. It’s a version of the “broken window” strategy—neighborhood decay starts one broken and unfixed window at a time. Mass social work has, instead, shifted to remediation: trying to fix broken windows instead of avoiding breakage in the first place. As Husock puts it, it’s “reformative,” not “formative.”
But can government perform a “formative” role? Should government get into the moral formation business? Here, Husock laments the decline of civil society, the private philanthropies that brought their values along with their assistance. Government, he insists, cannot be in the moral formation business, because it inevitably gets embroiled in questions of whose morals in a pluralistic society. I share Husock’s concerns, not because I don’t believe we couldn’t find some least common denominator set of moral values that all or most of us should be able to agree on, but because least common denominators tend to become all-inclusive packages: the floor becomes the ceiling, squeezing out any richer and fuller moral vision. Consider the quest of some government agencies to push Catholic adoption agencies out of that work because they hold—contrary to some governments—that a child has a right to a father and a mother.
I have no doubt that the mainstream of Catholic social work and “social justice” approaches in the United States—long tethered to government contracts—will not necessarily be enthusiastic about Husock’s policy ideas, and I admit my own skepticism about too thoroughgoing a privatization mentality when it comes to today’s social problems. But Husock asks the provocative question whether the scale of our contemporary social problems is not in fact due at least in part to the expansion and effects of the government’s role in them. I’d ask if it’s part of our failure to apply subsidiarity as rigorously as we should. A challenging book, it deserves serious attention.