Government can help with but cannot win the war on poverty


“If men were angels,” James Madison once wrote, “no government would be necessary.”

Though published more than two centuries ago, Madison’s words have been proven true time and time again.

Indeed, if we really were a society build on love and charity there would be little need for many government-run programs.

Unfortunately, this is not the world we live in.

President Johnson

To be sure, churches, non profits and local charities have helped and continue to help those in need. But over the past fifty years, our country has grown in size and stature, and so have our problems, especially our moral failings. Fortunately, many of those problems have been ameliorated by effective state-run initiatives.

But many have not. And many programs have only worsened the situation.

Here’s what I mean.

Most Americans support the idea behind Social Security. They may disagree about the most effective way to operate it, but most of us think it’s an important program that helps senior citizens.

In many ways, Social Security has been a successful federal-run program.

However, there have been many federal initiatives that – though well intentioned – are not only ineffective, but disrupt the appropriate relationship between the individual and the state.

One principle that is often overlooked when trying to understand the appropriate relationship between the individual and the state is the Catholic social principle of subsidiarity.

Subsidiarity is the belief that if something can be accomplished more effectively by a lower level of government then higher levels of government should not get involved. For instance, if the state of New York is better at delivering healthcare to its citizens than the federal government, then the federal government has no business telling them how to do it. In other words, nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done just as well by a smaller and simpler organization.

Now, there are areas where local government is inadequate and higher levels of government are necessary. Indeed, it would be unwise to think that a county or local municipality could do a better job at protecting credit card owners than the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau.

True as that may be, it is often the case that many federal programs are established by politicians more concerned with prolonging their career than respecting the principle of subsidiarity. What inevitably happens is that lower forms of government end up getting pulverized.

Without respect for the important role churches, non profits and local government play in the lives of ordinary citizens, politicians end up destroying what was once a thick and robust buffer between the individual and the federal government.

When these mediating institutions are cast aside, the federal government assumes unto itself the responsibility of providing, among other things, shelter, food, and material well being for its citizens – a not so inexpensive venture.

Indeed, we see this take place all too often in our politics. And my home state of Michigan is no exception.

Republican Governor Rick Snyder recently paid a visit to a school in Grand Rapids that reportedly provides breakfast, lunch and dinner for its students during their summer vacation.

Now, no one wants children to go hungry, but can anyone seriously defend the idea that the state, and not the mother and father of these children (or a local charity), should be the ones providing them with meals during the summer? Whatever happened to the family unit? Whatever happened to relying on our neighbors and churches for help?

The fact of the matter is that when the state takes on responsibilities formerly reserved to the family, it obfuscates the importance of civil institutions and plunges us into an ever-deepening reliance on programs and initiatives from a far away bureaucracy that will not and have not accomplished their stated ends. Namely, win the war on poverty.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Stephen Kokx is a freelance writer and adjunct professor of political science living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has previously worked for the Archdiocese of Chicago's Office for Peace and Justice. His writing on religion, politics and Catholic social teaching has appeared in a number of outlets, including Crisis Magazine, The American Thinker and his hometown paper The Grand Rapids Press. He is a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and the Society of Catholic Social Scientists, and is a graduate of Aquinas College and Loyola University Chicago. Follow Stephen on twitter @StephenKokx

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