Catholic Charities Versus the Poor

December 14, 1998 • Commentary

As a lifelong Catholic — and a practicing one at that — I have often been embarrassed by the leftist orientation of the church’s lobbying team in Washington. But my embarrassment turned to jaw‐​clenching rage when I turned on C-SPAN recently and saw that among the usual left‐​wing activists assembled at the Brookings Institute to rail against Social Security privatization was a representative from Catholic Charities, USA.

Yes, there was Catholic Charities spokeswoman Sharon Daly seated alongside Kweisi Mfume of the NAACP, Jesse Jackson from the Rainbow Coalition, John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO, and, get this, Patricia Ireland of the National Organization for Women. Ms. Daly introduced her remarks by cavalierly noting that this was the first time she had ever appeared on the same platform with the militantly pro‐​abortion Patty Ireland. (Wasn’t that a tip‐​off to Ms. Daly that she’d stumbled onto the wrong side of this issue.) But it would appear that Catholic Charity’s commitment to big government is one of its highest callings. The Brookings crowd, of course, was delighted at this new and improbable feminist‐​Catholic alliance.

Don’t be surprised to see Catholic Charities teaming up at a national health care rally with Dr. Kevorkian sometime soon.

Of all the presentations, Ms. Daly’s was arguably the most ideologically left wing and easily the most economically incomprehensible. Here we have an organization that says that it judges public policy changes by how they would affect “the poorest among us” urging Congress to reject a proposal that would allow the poorest among us to voluntarily opt out of a system that offers them a dreadful rate of return on their tax dollars. The accompanying table shows that private retirement accounts would offer even workers earning the minimum wage throughout their working lives a retirement income 50 to 100 percent higher than what Social Security promises.

The only remaining objection to private accounts is ideological: some people are simply predisposed to favor big government and are thus unpersuadable by evidence. Too often these days Catholic Charities falls in that category.

Let me state the point more plainly: Social Security hurts poor people. Yet if Catholic Charities has its way, poor people will be condemned to such a system for generations to come.

The essence of Ms. Daly’s remarks, however, was not so much that private retirement accounts would allegedly harm the poor but that the rich would do better still. When I went to Catholic grade school 30 years ago, I was taught that envy was one of the seven deadly sins.

The tragedy in all this is that once upon a time Catholic Charities was one of the most efficient and nonpolitical charitable organizations in the United States. It had low overhead, and contributors could be certain that their money would be directed speedily to needy and distressed individuals around the globe.

No longer. Now Catholic Charities is increasingly preoccupied with advancing an anti‐​free‐​market, big‐​government agenda — they oppose almost any tax cuts, promote government run health care, oppose welfare reform, and now condemn poor people to a Social Security system that offers them a lousy deal. The Catholic Church’s ravings against welfare reform four years ago — the dire predictions that widows and orphans would be thrown on the streets — has been thoroughly discredited by the spectacular success of work‐​based welfare. But that bad call has not in any way moved the church’s Washington lobby from its increasingly doctrinaire liberal view of the benevolence of government. The church’s official support for a muscular government is puzzling, given that throughout history the state has been the primary oppressor of religion in general and Catholicism in particular. Just ask the Polish.

Over the past five years people who favor individual retirement accounts as an alternative to Social Security have trumped every argument that opponents could think of to derail this populist idea. For example, almost all Social Security privatization plans include a safety‐​net provision that would guarantee low‐​income Americans a minimum benefit upon retirement that matches Social Security’s floor benefit. The only remaining objection to private accounts is ideological: some people are simply predisposed to favor big government and are thus unpersuadable by evidence. Too often these days Catholic Charities falls in that category.

Alas, conservative Catholics must begin to rethink their support for Catholic Charities. Contributions are partially financing a propaganda campaign in Washington to prop up a dysfunctional and paternalistic welfare state that keeps poor people poor and dependent. Catholic Charities may not change its ways until contributors stop writing checks.

How Social Security Hurts the Poor
Year of Birth
1950 1970
Monthly Benefit for
Low‐​Income Workers
Social Security $631 $769
Bond Portfolio $1,069 $1,085
Stock Portfolio $2,490 $2,419
Source: William Shipman, “Retiring with Dignity,” Cato Institute, 1996.
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