United States Welfare Policy

A Catholic Response

Thomas J. Massaro, SJ

"Massaro's holistic reliance on theology, political narrative, and an assessment of the law's measurable human impact contributes to a fuller picture of welfare reform than [is] available in most accounts."
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The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 drastically changed the delivery of social services in the United States for the first time in sixty years. More than a decade later, according to Catholic social ethicist Thomas Massaro, a disturbing gap exists between the laws we have enacted as a nation and the moral concerns we profess as a people.

Massaro contends that ethicists too often focus on strictly theoretical concerns rather than engaging concrete social and political issues, while public policy experts are uncomfortable drawing ethical judgments about legislation. United States Welfare Policy takes a fresh approach to the topic by using Catholic social teaching as a lens through which to view contemporary American welfare policies, citing the tradition's emphasis on serving the needy—including a preferential option for the poor—and the common good.

Massaro maintains that the most important outcome of welfare policy is not the cost-effectiveness of programs, but the well-being of individual families. The concluding analysis of this thoughtful study applies Catholic ethical concerns to specific aspects of welfare reform, including the funding mechanisms for the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, work participation requirements affecting the bond between mothers and children, eligibility rules, the intrusion of family caps into reproductive decisions, and the imposition of disproportionate burdens upon particular demographic groups.

Massaro offers possible alternatives in each case and, as the fight over reauthorization of the welfare act continues, he calls on Catholic churches and clergy and laity to take action and advocate publicly for a more ethical approach to welfare reform.

Table of Contents



1. Catholic Social Teaching: General Approaches to Social Policy
Vehicles of Catholic Social Teaching
The Methodology of Catholic Social Teaching: Three Caveats
The Central Vision of Catholic Social Teaching
Positions Regarding Two Key Institutions
Three Principles for Social Policy

2. The Historical Context of U.S. Welfare Policy
The Roots of American Social Policy
The New Deal and its Legacy
The "Permanent Crisis" of AFDC
The Role of Charitable and Faith-Based Organizations in the Social Welfare System

3. At the Crossroads: The Welfare Reform Law of 1996
The Block-Granting of Welfare
Time Limitation of Benefits
Work Requirements
Anti-Illegitimacy Measures
Other New Conditions on Benefits
Other Provisions of the 1996 Welfare Law
The Way Forward

4. The Bishops' Contribution to the Welfare Reform Debate
The New Welfare Consensus of the 1980s and the Bishops' Demurral
Documents of the U.S. Catholic Church on Welfare Reform: 1994-96
Five Guidelines for Social Policy

5. Implementing Welfare Reform, 1996-2006
Further Developments in Federal Welfare Policy, 1996-2002
The Fallout of the 1996 Overhaul: Fears, Reaction and Results
Patterns of State Implementation

6. The Politics and Ethics of Welfare Reauthorization
The Politics of Reauthorization
Ongoing Ethical Concerns Regarding Welfare Policy
Public Church Contributions to Social Policy: Present and Future




"Massaro's holistic reliance on theology, political narrative, and an assessment of the law's measurable human impact contributes to a fuller picture of welfare reform than [is] available in most accounts."—Commonweal

"A valuable resource in setting out what religious social ethics require of a more just welfare policy."—Politics and Religion

"This new volume should set moral theology on a new course with its detailed integration of Catholic social teaching and the concrete realities of welfare policy in America."—John T. Pawlikowski, OSM, Catholic Theological Union

"This well-reasoned study by an expert in Catholic social thought offers an excellent explanation of the Catholic Church’s firm belief that the government is morally required to provide for assistance to all persons in the event of sickness, unemployment, and old age—it is, in fact, the government's duty to make certain that all persons have those things necessary to preserve human dignity."—Robert F. Drinan, SJ, professor of law, Georgetown University Law Center

"This book is a much needed and timely analysis of U.S. welfare policy. Massaro weaves together policy history and analysis, ongoing political debates, and the rich tradition of Catholic social teaching to clarify for people of faith and good will what is at stake in 'welfare reform.'"—Pamela K. Brubaker, professor of religion, California Lutheran University

"United States Welfare Policy ably fills an important niche that no other book quite matches. Deftly, Massaro displays the process by which the theological and ethical principles of Catholic Social Teaching get translated into the pragmatics of policy debates and decisions. Many students of Catholic social teaching have long looked for just such a carefully crafted, empirically informed, case study of careful negotiation of ethics into policy in ways which show the illuminating power and import of Catholic social principles in concrete policy choices. Secondly, precisely because it is so knowledgeable about the literature and realities of welfare reform in the United States during the last two decades, Massaro's 'Catholic Response' is more deeply a profound ethical engagement of the real policy debates about welfare policy. This is an important and excellent book."—John A. Coleman , SJ, Casassa Professor of Social Values, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, California

"The distinctiveness of this text is that it constitutes an excellent case study of how to connect the ethical principles of a faith-based tradition to a specific public policy."—John Francis Burke, University of St. Thomas

"This volume thoughtfully blends a discussion of Catholic social teaching and American social welfare politics, in an effort to explain the relationship between doctrine, episcopal advocacy, and national policymaking. It is well written, thoroughly researched, and rich in its content. United States Welfare Policy makes an important contribution to the fields of policy-making, legislative politics, Christian ethics, and moral theology, and it should be of interest to specialists across those fields."—Elizabeth Oldmixon, University of North Texas


Supplemental Materials


2008 Catholic Press Association Book Award for Social Concerns, Honorable Mention

About the Author

Thomas J. Massaro, SJ, a Jesuit priest of the New England Province, is associate professor of moral theology at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of Living Justice: Catholic Social Teaching in Action and coeditor of American Catholic Social Teaching.

272 pp., 6 x 9

ISBN: 978-1-58901-155-7
May 2007

272 pp., 6 x 9

ISBN: 978-1-58901-156-4
May 2007

272 pp.

ISBN: 978-1-58901-480-0
May 2007

Moral Traditions series
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