The American Solidarity Party at the Catholic University of America

By Sean McCarthy

During the 2016 presidential election season, I was deeply distressed by the dominant parties. As a Catholic, I found myself unable to support either party in good conscience. The Republicans, despite their supposed acceptance of the dignity of the unborn, elevated a veritable demagogue, exacerbating all of their worst tendencies and positions. The Democrats, despite their commitment to social justice and their acceptance of the evidence of environmental crises, refused to acknowledge the human dignity of the unborn and seemed increasingly hostile to any religion that refused to submit to the demands of postmodern secularism. I became aware of the American Solidarity Party through Facebook, and quickly became a member, finding in it a party where my convictions could remain whole rather than torn and fragmented. 

I felt that as a student (currently in my sixth year in the combined MA/PhD Philosophy program), I could contribute to the party by founding a campus chapter at the Catholic University of America. I proceeded to gather the minimum number of members and to recruit the necessary faculty advisor. By the end of the fall semester, after explaining the vision of the party to those in charge of campus organizations, we were able to establish the chapter. 

I mainly relied on like-minded friends to help me in the beginning, especially Niklas Rodewald, a Marist seminarian. I recall hosting the first of many open houses, events that proved to be disappointing in turnout (altogether I have had two people come to such events, one of whom is now the chapter’s vice president). I intended all along to recruit undergraduate students, in the hope that they would take over and sustain the organization into the future. 

During the spring semester of 2017, I sought ideas for events aligned with our vision. Every year during the month of March, CUA celebrates Women’s History Month by encouraging student organizations to recognize women and host various events. I realized that this would be an ideal occasion for the chapter to honor Dorothy Day with an event. From what I knew of her at the time, she lived a life that defied categorization into typical liberal and conservative boxes, as she was profoundly and holistically pro-life. This idea would turn into an annual event that has happened three times and of which I am especially proud: The Legacy of Dorothy Day. 

That first year, I  connected with Dr. Zena Hitz from St. John’s College, Tim Keating of the Society of Mary, and Art Laffin of the Catholic Worker house in Washington, D. C.. They came and offered profound, authentic, and moving reflections from their own experience of being shaped by Day’s legacy. Art has been my most enduring speaker, sharing his wisdom during each of the three events. Like Day, he seems to never turn down an invitation to speak. Last year, we were joined by Dr. Margaret Laracy of Communion and Liberation, an organization that had presented an exhibit on Dorothy Day at their yearly event in New York City. This past March, Art delivered introductory remarks before we watched “Don’t Call Me a Saint,” an excellent documentary made by Claudia Larson about Dorothy Day.

I’ll offer two reflections from my experience hosting these events. First, as Day understood, even the smallest beginnings can lead to profound change through faith, hope, and love. The events drew a handful of people and did not make an enormous splash on campus. Nevertheless, we began a tradition that has impacted various people and shapes our identity and mission on campus. As Day wrote, “People say, what is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time. A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that. No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.”

Second, the people most impacted by the events might be those who are engaged in presenting them. In other words, as Flannery O’Connor put it, “The life you save may be your own.” In planning, arranging, hosting, and offering introductory remarks at each of the events, I have gained experience in what is involved in carrying out successful events. I have been shaped through these experiences to become a better leader of the group on campus. More importantly, though, this work required that I give sustained and intensive focus to the life of Dorothy Day, a person whose life is truly worth remembering and emulating in the twenty-first century, as it embodied passionate commitment to a consistent ethic of life. By focusing on such a saintly witness, I was affected for the better. 

In addition to these events, we’ve also hosted two events highlighting the consistent life ethic. One of these involved remembering Ben Salmon, the Catholic pacifist who was imprisoned, beaten, and force-fed for refusing to participate in World War I. In this case, I was contacted by certain pacifist activists who thought my organization would be congenial to their mission, and I mostly agreed that it was (notwithstanding our acceptance of just war theory). I was made a little uncomfortable, however, by the protest that occurred afterwards, featuring Buddhist monks beating drums, a man calling through a megaphone for repentance for America’s sins, and slow marching through campus to the offices of the Conference of Catholic Bishops and the building for the Archdiocese for the Military Services! The other event consisted of me interviewing John Whitehead on what a consistent ethic of life is. This event was far more peaceful and agreeable and ranged over a variety of issues connected to a consistent life ethic, including John’s special expertise in war and peace issues. I made sure to include other issues like poverty and immigration. Hopefully, this can be an event that is repeated multiple times. 

This past year I was joined by the most promising recruit of the organization so far, Ally Kilgore, a rising junior at Catholic University, who is an outstanding student and one of her class’s senators. Despite this modest but clear success, I was confronted with a troubling development once the summer began. The office of campus activities had determined that all political organizations besides the two affiliated with the major parties and one other organization dedicated to open discussion would no longer be recognized. As you can imagine, I was distraught and indignant. I proceeded to e-mail those in charge, challenging their explanations, and when this was unsuccessful, I pleaded my case to higher authorities on campus, who decided that I should meet in person with the individual in charge of campus organizations. I finally met with this man a few weeks ago and had a very affable yet forceful conversation, which succeeded in persuading him that the American Solidarity Party ought to be recognized on the campus of Catholic University. This was established for two reasons: first, that our vision cannot be fragmented and distributed among the two dominant parties, as our seamless garment approach is holistic; second, unlike certain other third parties that tend towards radical positions in the eyes of the university, we are deeply aligned with the school’s vision and mission, since we are so thoroughly informed by Catholic social teaching. Indeed, as I have said many times to people when introducing the organization, our party is deeply aligned with the vision of Pope Francis, who, as Charlie Camosy argues, is at the cutting edge of Catholic social teaching. 

I hope that as we go forward in what will undoubtedly be another dramatic election season, we will succeed in showing more people that there is another way, that those who embrace the dignity of all human life from beginning to end do not need to be single-issue voters, but can find a home where a consistent ethic of life reigns. 

Distributism Basics with John Médaille

John Médaille is a retired businessman and, for the last fifteen years, an adjunct instructor at the University of Dallas, where he teaches the courses Introduction to the Bible and Catholic Social Teaching for Business Students. He is the author of The Vocation of Business and outlines the fundamentals of distributism in his book Toward a Truly Free Market. His writing is also featured in The Crisis of Global Capitalism and in Localism in the Mass Age.

In this live video, Mr. Médaille discusses the characteristics of capitalism, socialism, and distributism, and makes clear how the free market is distinct from capitalism.

Nat Hentoff’s Idiosyncratic Example

By John Whitehead

Those who wish to defend human life from the many threats to it, those who wish to overturn the usual left-right political categories, and those who wish to discover a genuinely independent thinker would all do well to read the work of Nat Hentoff. Hentoff, who died in 2017 after a journalistic career lasting over sixty years, defied conventional labels: he was an avowed atheist who staunchly opposed abortion and assisted suicide, a friend of both Malcolm X and John Cardinal O’Connor, and a civil libertarian who antagonized both liberals and conservatives. 

Many of Hentoff’s convictions and concerns came to him early. Growing up Jewish in Boston during the Great Depression, he experienced bigotry firsthand, most significantly in the form of Irish toughs who would beat up and terrorize Jewish Bostonians (Hentoff lost a tooth in one such encounter). His first (and probably greatest) passion—jazz music—brought him into contact with an array of black musicians and made him aware of racism’s evils. These early experiences gave a Hentoff a concern for equality and a penchant for siding with the underdog.

Hentoff also acquired a habit of iconoclasm and a dislike for authority. At the age of twelve, he dramatically rejected the Judaism of his early childhood by publicly eating a salami sandwich on Yom Kippur. As a teenager, employment at a candy store led to his first participation in a labor strike, against the store’s draconian owner. Work on the student newspaper at Northeastern University brought Hentoff and other students into conflict with the administration over the paper’s criticism of the college trustees. This last conflict demonstrated another of Hentoff’s passions: freedom of speech, as well as the First Amendment and constitutional law more broadly. 

These early influences fostered Hentoff’s career as a writer of fiction and journalism. His non-fiction writing covered jazz, racial equality, civil liberties, and politics. In the late 1950s, Hentoff found a steady outlet for his journalism at the Village Voice, where he would remain for over 40 years (although he characteristically criticized the Voice itself publicly on more than one occasion). 

Hentoff’s early career coincided with the civil rights movement, which he chronicled and sympathetically analyzed in his book The New Equality. In a passage that sounds familiar half a century later, he wrote:

Justice is less likely to be done if you are poor, and it is in worse imbalance if you are Negro and poor. A study by the United States Department of Justice reveals that in some areas guilty pleas are three times as frequent among prisoners who have to be assigned court-appointed attorneys as among those who can afford to retain their own lawyers. As for capital cases, Norman Redlich, a professor of law at New York University and a close student of capital punishment, claims that hardly anyone is executed in this country who has money or influential friends. Clarence T. Duffy, former warden of San Quentin [State Prison], adds: “Negroes are more likely to die than white men—and for less serious crimes.” (The New Equality, p. 52)

Hentoff would report on racial inequality, in the criminal justice system and elsewhere, until his last years.

When writing a profile of the Nation of Islam in 1960, Hentoff met the organization’s then-spokesman, Malcolm X, amid an unfriendly crowd in a Harlem diner. He found in Malcolm X a welcome intellectual sparring partner—“calmly alert, he enjoys the challenge of debate,” Hentoff wrote—and a friendship developed between them. As Hentoff later recalled, “I enjoyed watching him outmaneuver reporters and academics who either were convinced that he was an irredeemable racist or felt that with sufficient cultivation he might eventually see the light and join the editorial board of the New York Times.” They spoke for the final time a few days before Malcolm X’s murder, the only time Hentoff saw his friend visibly afraid.

A significant ideological difference between the two friends lies in their differing views on whether violence was justifiable, with Hentoff taking the more pacifist view. During the 1960s, he became involved in peace and nonviolent activism for the first time, participating in a protest against nuclear weapons and writing a biography of the pacifist A. J. Muste, whom he considered a mentor. Hentoff also spoke out against the Vietnam War and occasionally participated in anti-war activities. Writing in the Voice in 1968, Hentoff also made a curiously prophetic comment. Decrying the violence in Vietnam and the United States (Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated only a few days earlier), Hentoff speculated on what “could produce a massive pro-life victory.”

At the time, Hentoff’s use of the phrase “pro-life” did not include preborn humans threatened by abortion. Prior to the 1980s, Hentoff generally supported abortion access and knew very few pro-lifers. Moreover, abortion had touched him personally because his third wife, Margot, had had an abortion during a strained period in their marriage. Hentoff’s views began to change in the early 1980s, however, when he wrote a series of Voice columns on the “Baby Doe” cases. These were cases where children born with serious but not necessarily terminal disabilities, such as Down syndrome and spina bifida, were denied medical care at their parents’ request. As Hentoff reported, in one case a boy with Down syndrome in Bloomington, Indiana, was denied care that could have prevented his death by starvation.

Reports on these cases prompted an uproar and led Congress to amend child-abuse legislation in order to classify the denial of medical care to disabled infants with life-threatening conditions as a form of abuse. During the debate over the “Baby Doe” cases and subsequent legislation, Hentoff was appalled to see how many people on the political left defended the parents’ alleged right to deny their children life-saving medical care. An ACLU staffer described the denial of care in one case as “really an extension of reproductive freedom rights—a woman’s right to choose.”

This controversy led Hentoff to re-examine his attitudes toward abortion and to learn more about fetal development. As he explains in his memoir Speaking Freely:

I began to read the medical textbooks that physicians in prenatal care read—not pro-life books, but such standard texts as The Unborn Patient: Prenatal Diagnosis and Treatment

I spoke to a number of physicians who do research in prenatal development, and they emphasized that life is a continuum from fertilization to birth to death. Setting up divisions of this process to justify abortion, for example, is artificial. It is the life of a developing being that is being killed. The euphemisms for an aborted fetus—“the product of conception” and “a clump of cells”—are what George Orwell might have called newspeak… [emphasis in original]

As time went on, I began to understand that there is much more to abortion than abortion itself. The mindset—the ability to regard as just and necessary the killing of at least 1.3 million developing human beings a year—helps strengthen the consistent ethic of death in the nation—including the discounting of the Baby Jane Does and the rise of support for “assisted suicide.” (Speaking Freely, pp. 173-174)

Hentoff’s public embrace of a pro-life stance on abortion earned him the enmity of many, including several Village Voice colleagues and his own wife. His new stance did not earn him the unqualified support of pro-lifers, either: Hentoff remained a secular, left-leaning writer who took Republican politicians to task for their failure to respect civil liberties or meet the poor’s needs. In a 1986 speech on the “indivisibility of life,” Hentoff recalled speaking before a state right-to-life convention, to an audience that mostly disapproved of his whole-life message.  In that address, he argued that:

pro-lifers ought to be opposing capital punishment and nuclear armament and the Reagan budget with its dedicated care for missiles as it cuts funds for the Women/Infant/Children Program that provides diet supplements and medical checkups for mothers in poverty. Surely, I said, they should not emulate the President in these matters—and here I stole a line from Congressman Barney Frank—they should not emulate the President in being pro-life only up to the moment of birth. Well, the faces before me began to close, and from the middle and the back of the dining room there were shouts. I couldn’t make out the words, but they were not approving. As I went on, there were more shouts as well as growls and table-thumping of an insistence that indicated a tumbrel awaited outside. I finally ended my speech to a chorus of howls, and several of the diners rushed toward the dais. I did not remember ever intending to die for this cause, but as it turned out the attacks were all verbal.

He did find some philosophical allies, however, in groups such as Feminists for Life and the pro-life peace organization Pro-Lifers for Survival—the forerunner organization to the Consistent Life Network. Hentoff also found common cause and friendship with the “Genghis Khan” of the Roman Catholic Church, New York Archbishop John Cardinal O’Connor, who also faced opposition from the left and the right alike. In the late 1980s and the 1990s, Hentoff became a notable advocate for the consistent life ethic, in the pages of the Voice, in a syndicated newspaper column, and elsewhere. The speech just quoted expressed that ethic forcefully.

Hentoff went through a final, late-in-life philosophical change; however, that change sadly moved him away from the consistent life ethic and closer to his friend Malcolm X’s views. His concern for the lives and liberties of all people made him write frequently on victims of human rights abuses outside the United States, in China, Cuba, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere.  Exposing people’s suffering in Sudan, including the violent repression in Darfur in the early 2000s, was a particular passion of his.

Reporting on violent injustices led Hentoff to a disturbing conclusion: war could be justified in response to these injustices. Although a fierce critic of George W. Bush’s War on Terror, with its use of government surveillance, indefinite detention, and torture, Hentoff nevertheless endorsed Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. His support for the Iraq War was based not on concern over the weapons of mass destruction allegedly possessed by Saddam Hussein’s regime, but rather on that regime’s very real repression of the Iraqi people. Later, this same belief in war as a tool of humanitarian rescue led Hentoff to advocate for military intervention in Sudan.

Such hawkishness is bitterly disappointing for peace activists and advocates of the consistent life ethic who once so appreciated Hentoff as a comrade. Given his keen appreciation of the Bush administration’s disregard for human rights and civil liberties, Hentoff should have asked the obvious question of whether such an administration could be trusted with humanitarian intervention in another country.

Nevertheless, he had something to teach peace-minded people even in his later years. His justification for renouncing his traditional peace advocacy stands as a challenge for all who seek to defend justice and human rights without resort to violence:

After nearly 20 years of reporting on the likes of Sudan’s General al-Bashir and, more recently, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, I’m convinced there are times when the only way to rescue the surviving victims of such monsters is to bypass the U. N. with a league of democratic nations, enough of whose citizens are driven by a visceral need to protect the human rights of people being terrorized by their own sovereign governments.

For many years, I considered myself a nonviolent, direct-action pacifist, one who was greatly influenced by the lessons of the late A. J. Muste. . . . However, I am forced to conclude, after many decades spent reporting on and witnessing the evidence, that there is such a thing as immutable evil in this world—as personified by, among others, Robert Mugabe and Omar al-Bashir. By advocating the use of force to save their victims, I feel I have betrayed A. J., and probably that part of myself that made me a pacifist. But with General al-Bashir breaking the 2005 peace treaty that put a stop to his 20-year war against black Christians and animists in the south of Sudan—in which over two million people have already died—only force will prevent the opening of (to quote one Western observer there) “the gates of hell.”

While military force is a dubious tool for correcting injustice (as the dismal recent history of “regime change” shows), Hentoff was not wrong to point out the unambiguous malevolence of many regimes guilty of repressing their own people or others. Peace advocates need to be clear-eyed and honest about such regimes, and the departure from the peace cause by Hentoff should be a spur to deeper thought on how to counter these evildoers nonviolently. 

Notwithstanding his evolving views, Hentoff remained, in his later years, a gadfly and critic of those in power. His condemnation of Bush’s war on terror was succeeded by criticism of Barack Obama’s targeted killing by drones and other national security policies. He also continued to write against abortion, the death penalty, and police brutality. When Donald Trump emerged as a serious presidential contender, Hentoff wasted no time in lambasting him as well. His final column in September 2016 was, appropriately enough, in praise of the Constitution.

Very few people would agree with Hentoff on everything, something he would probably have regarded as a point of pride. Certainly, many advocates of the consistent life ethic would disagree with—and be deeply saddened by—his late-in-life hawkishness. Nevertheless, Hentoff’s work and life leave much to benefit the intellectually curious. He offered a thoughtful, unconventional defense of human life against abortion and similar threats, as well as valuable commentary on freedom of speech and other civil liberties. Above all, he offered the example of someone who did not follow the “herd of independent minds” but followed principles and evidence to their conclusions as he saw them, regardless of party lines or political orthodoxy. That is an example well worth remembering and imitating.

Illinois Passes “Progressive” Abortion Law

by Tai-Chi Kuo

June 14, 2019
Chicago, IL

Recently, Democratic Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker signed into law the Reproductive Health Act, designating abortion as a fundamental right in Illinois, repealing the Illinois Abortion Law of 1975, the Partial-birth Abortion Ban Act, and the Abortion Performance Refusal Act, repudiating any independent rights for the unborn under Illinois law, and restricting the scope of future Illinois state abortion regulations to those “narrowly tailored for the limited purpose of protecting the health of [women seeking abortions] and in the manner that least restricts a person’s autonomous decision-making.” The law has been recognized as the most extensive state abortion-rights act in the country to date and has been described by Illinois Democratic lawmakers as a hedge against the prospective actions of an increasingly conservative United States Supreme Court. Signaling his earlier eagerness to sign the Act, Governor Pritzker celebrated the fact that the Act would make Illinois “the most progressive [state] in the nation for reproductive healthcare.

Illinois Republicans, however, are also not without blame in this matter. In 2017, shortly before the end of his term, former Republican Governor Bruce Rauner signed the Reproductive Health Act’s forerunner, HB 40  (another bill guaranteeing access to abortion), and made the excesses of this legislation possible.

We at the American Solidarity Party of Illinois, however, beg to differ with Governor Pritzker: the Reproductive Health Act is a shocking and dangerous abomination, and we strenuously reject the notion that this brazen and reactionary political stunt contributes anything of value toward the goal of bettering the quality of, or access to, health care in the United States of America.

The American Solidarity Party believes in the sanctity of human life, and our national platform affirms that respect for the dignity of human life is the most basic tenet of a civilized society. As such, we are especially troubled regarding the following portions of the Act:

  • Section 1-15(c), which denies any independent rights to the unborn (robbing them of their human dignity);
  • Section 1-20(a), which prohibits state actions restricting the practice of abortion and providing a cause of action to sue the government if the state does restrict the practice of abortion (a scare tactic attempting to preempt abortion-law challenges with the threat of a lawsuit); and
  • Section 905-30, which repeals the Abortion Performance Refusal Act, which had previously protected hospitals, doctors, and other conscientiously-objecting health-care professionals from damages or loss of licensing for refusing to perform an abortion.

It is incontrovertible scientific fact that the human fetus is genetically distinct from his or her mother, is growing through the process of cell division, and is responsive to external stimuli. Cutting these living human beings off from the “unalienable rights” of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is heinous, deplorable, and completely un-American. It is within this context that we call on pro-life Illinoisans to reject the special interests of both Chicago and Springfield. Let us work together to protect the least of these by repealing this unconscionable legislation and replacing it with protections for the unborn as well as the strong and inclusive social safety nets which would allow women, children, and single-parent homes to grow into their full potential and live out the American Dream.

The American Solidarity Party was founded in the Christian democratic political tradition to seek the common good in society. The Party believes in the sanctity of human life, the necessity of social justice, a shared responsibility to care for the environment, and the promotion of a more peaceful world. To learn more, email us at

Book Review …And Forgive Them Their Debts: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption from Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year

by Lloyd A. Conway

Lloyd A. Conway, originally from Detroit, MI, is a retired veteran of the Army & National Guard, was a civil servant for 20 years and has been an adjunct teacher at Spring Arbor University for the past 20 years. Mr. Conway previously served on the Charlotte, MI City Council and chaired the Planning Commission. He holds degrees from Excelsior College, Wayne State University, Western Michigan University and Eastern Michigan University. He is married to a fellow teacher and has five adult children. They reside in Lansing, MI.

As an economist-archaeologist, Michael Hudson is a rarity.  This rather unique combination of professions has been Professor Hudson’s calling card for decades, as he has specialized in economic issues pertaining to the civilizations of the ancient Fertile Crescent. His life of scholarship is now capstoned in a November, 2018 volume, …And Forgive Them Their Debts: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption from Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year, a scholarly look at ‘Jubilee Year’ traditions in the ancient Near East, including those contained in Mosaic law. While the author does not approach his subject from a Christian worldview, he does argue for the validity and implementation of jubilee years, just as described in the Old Testament.

Professor Hudson traces the use of debt relief back to  earliest recorded history. Almost from the beginning of Mesopotamian urban society, there are recorded instances of the accumulation of peasant/working class debt, typically debt from loans to farmer-proprietors for seed and tools, made against a share of an expected harvest. Those debts, calculated at interest rates based on the Sumerian calendrical system, carried interest rates of as much as 33 1/3%. This burden, while heavy, was bearable in years when the harvest was good. In times of drought, famine, war or other disaster, such debts could not be paid.

Debt-bondage and forfeiture of the means of production—tools, lands, even family members, and finally the debtor himself—were all too often the results of such crop-loan schemes. As debts increased via interest, at rates exceeding income growth (which Professor Hudson cites as a common progression), most people were unable to pay those debts off. The end result was a recurring cycle of misfortune, bondage, and the resulting rise of a rentier class that both oppressed the working poor and threatened the State. The remedy applied at the accession of many kings, of which Professor Hudson gives extensive examples, was to forgive all personal (but not business or speculative) debts, whether owed to the State for unpaid taxes or to the wealthy (often temple officials, who also functioned as bankers). Monarchs benefited from this by helping to keep subjects free and thus able to pay taxes, render corvée labor for canal repairs and the like, and serve in the militia when necessary. (Offering debt relief to the bond-subjects of one’s enemies in wartime was also a common tactic, which made debt relief all the more advisable for monarchs contemplating war, either as aggressor or defender.)

The recurring cycle of debt and forgiveness continued until the advent of Iron Age civilizations in Greece and Rome, which were famously unstable due to their debtor-creditor class conflicts. Israel kept the tradition of debt relief alive, with a twist: Instead of being offered through the good graces of an ascendant monarch, forgiveness of one’s debts was offered through the grace of Almighty God, the good news of which was announced by the priesthood and codified in Mosaic law.

Sadly, whether in ancient Sumer or in Israel, creditors were clever in finding ways to circumvent debt jubilees, including by post-dating loans or having debtors explicitly disavow debt relief, if it were to be offered in the future. In the case of Judea, via the ‘Prosbul’ of Rabbi Hillel, debtors were allowed to exempt their obligations from discharge during the Jubilee Year, thus substituting innovations of sinful men for the Word of God.

Professor Hudson concludes his tome with a chapter on ‘the Byzantine Echo,’ when some emperors of the Eastern Roman Empire put Christian principles of political economy into practice, helping to tamp down rentier activity detrimental to the tax base and military strength of the State. This policy yielded good fruit until set aside by the Commenian Dynasty beginning in the late 11th century.

Professor Hudson’s work is detailed, exhaustive, and perhaps a bit dry for those not particularly interested in his subject matter, but he has done the public a good service by identifying the Jubilee Year as something common, effective, and widely used for millennia to keep societies in balance and able to avoid the class-based social unrest that rocked Classical societies to their foundations time and again. ASP readership may find this book of interest because of the policy implications of a Bible-based debt relief policy, including helping to ameliorate income inequality, preventing social unrest (the usual outcome of having a long-term debtor class in a society) and re-balancing a socio-political system to ensure its continuing viability. While we may not share his secularist worldview, we can appreciate his scholarship, as it validates the historicity of the Biblical injunction to regularly forgive personal debts. It will be up to us, as his readers and benefactors, to consider how we might apply his scholarship to the issues of debt, income inequality and the political problems flowing from them in our time.

Book coverHudson, Michael.  (2018.) And forgive them their debts: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption from Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year.  Islet Press. Cambridge, MA.

Lifting Society from the Bottom Up: A Distributist Agenda for the American Solidarity Party

by John Médaille

While many members of the ASP are distributists, many more are unfamiliar with the term. To give a one sentence definition of distributism, it is the belief, supported by centuries of practice, that families are better off when they have their own property sufficient to allow them to choose how to make their own way in the world. Property should not ordinarily be gathered into vast collectives, whether corporate or Soviet, but rather spread as widely as possible. In what follows, I draw out some of the practical implications of this for the ASP platform.

I outline the economics of distributism in my book Toward a Truly Free Market. For those who would rather not buy the book, I give some further information here, here, and in many other articles which you can read on my page.

By way of introduction, I am a retired businessman and, for the last fifteen years, an adjunct instructor at the University of Dallas, where I teach the courses Introduction to the Bible and Catholic Social Teaching for Business Students. I hope that what follows may prove useful in the platform committee’s deliberations.

Respectfully submitted, what follows is an outline of a distributist agenda for the American Solidarity Party. I recognize that not all members of the ASP are distributists, but many distributists seem to be members of the ASP. This is good, because it seems to me that distributists need a political home, since at present we tend to separate our distributist selves from our political selves. That is to say, as distributists we may found a business or a co-op, or dream of doing so, but as voters we are nothing in particular; we are Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, progressives, and what have you. We are all over the map. That is to say, we are nowhere at all. But if distributism is a real possibility, it needs to have a political program and one with a clear and definable purpose and goal. And I suggest that the goal should be two-fold, one part of which might be termed “subversive,” and one part of which might be termed “patriotic.” These two parts correspond to two dimensions of political theory: subsidiarity and solidarity.

First, the subversive part. Here, we are always trying to widen the spaces wherein people might use their own personal or cooperative property to make their own ways in the world. Here, we are trying to create cracks in the concrete hegemony of capitalism so that some distributist flowers might grow. And foremost is the broadening and enforcement of antitrust laws. For while capitalist propaganda advertises itself as a “free market,” the reality is otherwise. In a truly free market, there is vigorous competition and no firm is large enough to dominate the market and keep competition out. But what has actually happened is anti-market. When we look at practically any segment of the economy, we find that it is dominated by two or three firms. From beer to banking, from eye care to oil to entertainment, we find not a free market but a cartelized economy which sucks all the life out of the market and diminishes the space for the economic use of personal and cooperative property.

Foremost among the hegemonic institutions is the big-box store, itself largely the creation of the highway subsidy. These stores have done more than any other to wipe out the small businessman and destroy the commercial and communal lives of towns and cities. But their “competitive” advantage does not arise from any supposed “efficiency,” but from subsidy. For it is not more efficient—but less so—to manufacture low-value goods in the interior of China, ship them to the coast, ship them across the sea to Long Beach, California, ship them by truck to Bentonville, Arkansas, and then ship them to regional distribution centers and stores. The only way this is practical is because the transportation system is subsidized at every stage. If, for example, the interstate highway system were financed by weight and distance tolls, the big-box store would be seen for what it is: the least efficient way of distributing goods, and local manufacturers and retailers, with their shorter supply lines, would have the cost advantage.

Along with undermining the hegemonic aspects of capitalism, we must build up the legal and regulatory basis for distributist enterprises. Cooperatives need to have their own space in law, a space that provides for regulatory and even tax relief. There are good reasons to highly regulate vast global enterprises, and to regulate them at both the national and international levels. A Smithfield Foods pig barn that slaughters 4,000 pigs a day for shipment across the country needs one kind of regulatory regime, but when these safeguards are applied to the small farmer slaughtering a dozen pigs a week, the enterprise becomes uneconomic; Smithfield actually benefits from a regulatory regime that only big firms can afford.

Likewise, firms where the employees have effective control of their own work rules need little in the way of public regulation; the workers can protect their own interests. But in firms where the workers have no power, they require the power of the state to protect them from exploitative work rules and dangerous and toxic work environments. Hence, the small and worker-owned firm will have a regulatory advantage over the large, multinational firm.

This short list is not meant to be exhaustive, but suggestive. Starting from the principle of widening the economic space for distributism and undermining capitalist hegemony, many other things will suggest themselves. But along with this subversive goal of undermining the system, there is a second and paradoxical goal: We must uphold the system. That is, we must participate in the political process with the goal of getting people the best deal that can be obtained under liberal capitalism. There are, of course, distributists who take the opposite tack, such as many advocates of the so-called “Benedict Option,” which advises political quietism while building up counter-cultural enterprises; their hope is that the liberal world order will simply collapse, and then, as Patrick Deneen put it, “such countercultures will come to be seen not as ‘options’ but as necessities.”

There are at least two problems with this. The first is that it’s the kind of thing said mainly by tenured professors and political pundits whose needs are well met by the system of liberal capitalism; they can painlessly advocate for collapse since they are unlikely to actually see it. They are divorced from the problems of the masses of men and women who have neither tenure nor affordable health care. As such, the “Benedict Option” is simply a violation of solidarity.

The second problem is that just distribution does not arise from disorder, but from order. Liberal order has collapsed in Honduras; their major exports are now drugs and refugees. The Middle East is in flames; the only thing well-distributed is militias. It would be the same here; were America to collapse, the Amish farmers so admired by the “benedictines” would find themselves paying tribute to local warlords, presuming that they would be allowed to keep their farms at all. Yes, it can happen here, and the inflexible rule of history is that what goes around comes around.

So then, we are presented with a complex and even contradictory task. In the name of subsidiarity, we must work to undermine liberal capitalism and create alternative spaces for production and exchange, art and leisure, community and independence. But in the name of solidarity, we must work to ameliorate the system and socialize such common goods as health care, unemployment insurance, education, and so on. In this, we can think of ourselves as “patriotic subversives,” working simultaneously to undermine and uphold the system of liberal capitalism and to provide space and time for something better and more humane. I have no objection to those who would point out that socializing goods such as medicine is not the ideal solution, but I would point out that we need to evolve towards those ideals; we must start in the real situation in which we find ourselves and make the most of it, while providing spaces for alternatives to grow. That is to say, we must obtain what good we can in the present moment, and not make the remote ideal the only standard; to do so would be to make the best the enemy of the good.

Liberal capitalism in practice, whatever its theoretical claims, results in a “top-down” system. Property and power are gathered into fewer and fewer hands with the result that property is collectivized under a corporate managerial regime which quickly comes to dominate the political order. This is justified in the name of “trickle-down” theories that assert that the poor are helped primarily by aiding the rich; tax-cuts aimed at the wealthy will enable new investment to enrich the working class. But such collectivization, whether corporate or Soviet, never aids the people, save for the people who already have power. Prosperity does not trickle down, it bubbles up. Property distributed at the bottom aids all classes, for society is always lifted from the bottom up.

Radical Gardeners Wanted, Part 2

Amar Patel is the Vice Chair of the American Solidarity Party and director of Social Media.

Americans don’t want more politicians. Over 100 million adults did not vote in the 2016 presidential election. “None of the Above” could have won by a landslide. Too many people have to hold their noses and vote for the lesser of two evils in election after election all around the country. The American Solidarity Party has run several candidates for local offices, and the Mike Maturen/Juan Muñoz presidential ticket in 2016 garnered a lot of interest in Christian democracy, but we have not been able to create a stable pool of people consistently willing to run for office. This has caused some in the party to become frustrated and impatient, but I ask why?

Why should we think that, out of fewer than a thousand registered members, we should have many candidates? Out of 250 million US adults, there are around 500 thousand elected officials. That is an approximate ratio of 500 to 1. Though it isn’t wrong to pine for more, we should consider ourselves lucky that we have had so many people run or consider running for office. So how do we recruit more of these brave souls, and how do we create leaders to help guide the party through the troubling political landscape?

The answer is a culture, within the party, of service that is so radical, so extreme, so unmatched that people have to take notice. Genuine heroic sacrifice coupled with our principles, platform, and sound policy proposals offer us the only route to breaking through the barriers the political duopoly places in our way. Those who thrive on the coordination and execution of these ubiquitous service projects will be gaining the skills necessary to lead in a political setting. Organization, public speaking, committee work—these will all be required for our internal leaders to move people away from their televisions and out into their communities making a difference.

Studies show more and more Americans are becoming “nones” when it comes to religious affiliation. Why might this be happening? Christian democracy cannot thrive unless it offers an alternative that elevates the human spirit. We can’t just be a centrist political organization; we have to be super-centrist, which is to say, above the center. We cannot be on the same plane as Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and Greens; we have to transcend the normal political experience.

Imagine a Congress in which members wake up early, put on jeans, T-shirts, and aprons and serve breakfast to the poor and homeless of Washington, D.C., before addressing a funding bill at the Capitol. How would a president who stops by hospitals every few days to visit with the sick and dying or with new parents view issues like universal health care and abortion? How would your own life change if it were ordered around a social network of friends that look forward to community service as much as going out to a movie or a ball game?

I believe that if the American Solidarity Party can establish a public-service-to-public-servant system of growth toward leadership and candidacy, we can change the political culture in the United States in general. Apart from this, I don’t see any other path to success. G. K. Chesterton wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” Let us not say this about Christian democracy and a radical ASP.

Radical Gardeners Wanted: Part 1

Amar Patel is the Vice Chair of the American Solidarity party and Director of Social Media.

Have you ever felt passionate about a cause and jumped in with both feet, only to wonder why none of your friends or family dared to take the plunge with you?

I find this to be a specific stumbling block for the American Solidarity Party. Those of us who felt abandoned by the major parties and fell in love with the ASP at first sight can’t fathom why others with ostensibly similar backgrounds don’t feel the sting of Cupid’s arrow.

For years, many party members have believed that the perfect platform and principled policies coupled with active discussion groups on Facebook would eventually go viral and hordes of whole-life distributists would flood our database with new members. While I am reasonably certain there are a good number of political romantics still left in the U.S. who pine for Christian democracy but just haven’t heard of us yet, I doubt that those numbers are in the millions or even the tens of thousands.

Currently, the ASP is a quaint bed of flowers tucked away in a corner of the political landscape, walled off by aggressive major parties who poison the soil around us so we can’t extend our roots into their territories. Their monetary, legislative, and media control over the system ensure that we can’t win by playing the game in a traditional manner.

We must utilize alternative gambits that require us to go well beyond our comfort zones. The main parties rely on extreme voters to drive their selected candidates through primaries and perpetuate the duopoly each November election season. They confidently assume that the average American will check out of politics between elections. This is when we must strike.

I believe one mistake we keep making is assuming our rank and file members will engage readily in political activism. If we want a party of grassroots, we need gardeners who are willing to do some “cultivating.” I propose we task our members with the work they do best and that a Christian democratic party is naturally inclined toward: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, giving shelter to the homeless, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and the imprisoned.

Most Americans sympathetic to our cause will not come to us via convincing arguments or flashy social-media activity. They will come because we give them something to believe in. We have to walk the walk while we talk the talk. Can we show a yearning people that public service breeds public servants?

I challenge the members of the American Solidarity Party to change the way the political game is played by integrating the community service you are called to do with a mindset that we can change the world from the dirt up. If we sweat together, cry together, and bleed together, we will create a radical image that can resonate with millions of people of good will. Then, as political actors, we will have the moral heft or “street cred” to run politicians who can advocate for policies that pass by supermajorities.

Who is ready to get dirty with us?

Member Perspectives: The Need for Healthcare Reform

The strength of the American Solidarity Party will always be our passionate defense of our four principles of respect for life, social justice, environmental stewardship, and a more peaceful world. However, it can also come from how we respectfully argue our positions on other issues that challenge our communities. Here, ASP member Maria Reynolds-Weir offers some thoughts on the need for healthcare reform.

by Maria Reynolds-Weir

Naomi’s Story: The Case for Single-Payer Health Care

Naomi almost made it to her thirty-third birthday. On the day she died, her sister Leah set up a memorial “Medicare for All” fund in her honor because Naomi had spent too many of her precious few days figuring out how her health care would be paid for.

In the fifty-seven months that Naomi lived with colorectal cancer, she’d counted the songs and stories sung to her two children, the trips taken with her husband, and those taken to visit family and friends. She’d counted her surgeries, but not the troubles she faced in order to leave her husband with as little debt as possible, because she was grateful. Her health care had been mostly paid for thanks to the Affordable Care Act, imperfect as it is. Love, a strong support system, and reliable health providers help cancer patients—and other patients—stay stronger to fight their diseases longer. Naomi might not have lived as long if she had taken the advice of the social worker on her treatment team.

“You could consider divorce.”

Her social worker had advised her and her husband, Andy, in seriousness, to consider divorce. Ever the dark humorist, Naomi joked that she should get thrown in jail instead. “I could also find some fentanyl and sell it. They have to treat me in prison,” she said. Fentanyl wasn’t hard to find in Jackson, Michigan, where she lived when the ten-centimeter tumor nearly killed her. The year was 2013. A gastroenterologist diagnosed her on Valentine’s Day. She took short-term disability after two “shrinkage” chemotherapy sessions over the next few months. Once the surgical phase began, when she lost the primary tumor and added an ostomy, she realized she had less than ten years left, none of them as a full-time long-term wage earner in her home.

Naomi and Andy’s economic outlook had only begun to brighten in 2012, when she finally landed a job with benefits that included health insurance for the family. They’d been struggling with college debt (“Go to college! It will pay for itself!”) and a clunker that got her a mile down the road to work and back, but not much further. Not long after her first surgery, while living with an ostomy, Naomi realized she’d never be able to work full-time again. She rode out short-term disability and was fired for health-related reasons just as the January 1, 2014, open enrollment of the ACA kicked in. Already swimming in tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills, she spent her waking hours between chemo and radiation trying to sign up for a plan on the overloaded ACA websites.

Naomi discovered that there would be no ACA plan that was affordable, because of Michigan’s implementation of the plan. Conservative leaders across the US had thrown sticks into the spokes of the plan as it rolled out. The only help came from her social worker, who had said, “You could divorce Andy on paper. He’d probably need to move out for a while, in case your situation were investigated. You could keep the kids to show your need. Later, maybe he could move back in.” It was advice she gave to a number of couples, a common strategy because prison, where she could sue for complete treatment, was hardly practical for a church-going mother of two preschoolers.

“At least they have to cover a pre-existing condition now.”

After months of fighting for a solid plan, the hospital’s financial staff found a Medicaid program in Michigan that would cover her. So, Naomi signed up. While her kids ate lunches of Pop-Tarts while watching Blue’s Clues and jumping on the couch, she spent hours trying to sign herself and her kids up for care. Some days (like when she discovered her four-year-old son’s Social Security number and identity had been assigned to another child) felt like full-time administrative days.

“Bankruptcy. That’s what I think when I hear cancer.”

Naomi’s father, husband, mother, kids, siblings, and Naomi herself all worked for two years to remodel the bottom half of a sprawling Frederick, Maryland, home where Naomi, Andy, and the kids would soon live. The week Naomi went on hospice, they moved into the three-bedroom apartment. They’d relocated from Michigan to Maryland, where Andy would find viable employment—a job with future growth and real benefits, which Jackson could never offer—and where Naomi’s family could do more than schedule trips to cook, clean, and help with kids while Naomi slept through the ravages of radiation and chemo.

In the nearly five years Naomi lived with cancer, she had dozens of tumors removed, an ostomy put in, a reconstruction on the end of her colon, then the ostomy reinstated because she was nearing death weekly due to dehydration. Even with Andy’s benefits, Naomi had to stay on Medicaid. When she was well enough, she was expected to work. She couldn’t keep a job. Even with her six siblings and parents donating time, money, and child care, the bills piled up. Even with the ACA, Naomi spent precious days—when she had the energy—calling her provider to find out why her doctor’s chemotherapy regimen was “experimental and not covered” even though she was using standard drugs, just in alternative combinations.

In the living room while discussing the recent diagnosis of a fellow church member, Naomi’s father pinched his forehead, tears in his eyes, and answered the question, What do you hear when you hear the word cancer? with: “Bankruptcy. That’s what I think.” But he also heard socialized medicine when his kids enthusiastically supported the ACA, and even when his other daughters marched in the Women’s March with signs in rainbow letters that said, “The ACA saved my sister’s a——.”

A mainstream conversation?

On the day she died, Naomi’s father stayed silent while Naomi’s sister Leah sat cross-legged on the couch, calling out progress as she set up her “Medicare for All” fund. In the 2016 election, Naomi’s father had sworn off anything linked to Bernie Sanders. As a transplant to the East Coast and a Rust Belt Republican, he sweats the word socialism while his kids insist, “We need a single-payer plan.” After the funeral, the “Medicare for All” fund raised a chunk of change. Now, his children promote universal health care and debate which iteration will inspire the masses and shift the national opinion. Andy makes appearances advocating for “Medicare for All.” The siblings sport T-shirts for the brand.

In 2018, Naomi’s father nearly lost his job when his long-time employer, Sears Holdings (which owns both Sears and Kmart), filed for bankruptcy. He mentioned longingly how he’d like to retire promptly but had to wait. “Maybe when we get universal health care,” he let slip. He’s been subject to the willy-nilly labor-related dealings of his company and tied by necessity to the paternalism of employer-based health care for his entire life. He’s got the résumé and smarts to join a startup, but he and his wife are aging. Naomi’s disease, colorectal cancer, is ordinarily an older person’s disease, as are hypertension, diabetes, and the other cancers that lurk in their family histories. They, like so many American workers, can’t shell out the money for an individual health insurance plan. What’s affordable is not viable unless you’re a healthy twenty-something with a high risk tolerance.


Senator Mike Braun of Indiana, where Naomi was born and raised, recently called out the paternalism of insurance companies and health-care providers. He proposed a solution that will hold these entities responsible for opaque cost sheets and prioritizing profit margins before people.

Health-care providers need to offset the unpaid bills of those who are either underinsured or uninsured, so they often charge patients two or three times the cost of goods or services. The average worker with insurance gets a few negotiated breaks, but the costs of emergency-room visits remain obscenely high because it’s the only place where the poor can get health care. The poor often don’t have access to clinics or offices in their area. The poor often don’t have access to employer-based health insurance if they do work, and most do. The poor don’t have sufficient, if any, coverage even if they work. The system reeks of inefficiency.

Braun says it is the paternalism of the system that is causing problems, but which part of the system is most at fault? Insurance companies? Employers? The working class and mid-level professionals are overwhelmed but skeptical. When they bear testimony to the favors and trinkets that drug and device companies hand out to court hospitals and physicians, they sense their own skepticism and feel questions prick the backs of their necks. It stinks of paternalism at best, and sycophantism of the powerful at worst.

The land of confusion.

We live in a culture of conspiracy and implication. Causation and correlation get confused. Too many commentators fill the airwaves with too little information. On the perimeters, gluts of raw data and information presented in academic jargon obfuscate the issues. No wonder we succumb to the idea that our little voice doesn’t matter. We can’t change the system, we think. It’s too big. But we can, if we give ourselves permission, if we speak our concerns, if we ask our questions, if we call our representatives.

Since the inception of employer-based health insurance (during World War II, when companies courting employees from a tight labor force realized that for a few dollars, folks could visit a doctor a certain number of times, arranged by your employer, thank you very much), Americans have also fretted over socialism and communism. We conflate the two, treating them as synonyms. While post-WWII Great Britain exchanged the paternalism of company-based health insurance for a national health system (the National Health Service), American workers trusted that they’d mostly get good jobs with benefits. We trusted companies to value people as an asset worth honest, fair investments like pensions and health insurance. People over profit, we thought. We trusted that to be the American way.

It’s not working out.

If a worker has the education or opportunity to work full-time for a company that offers benefits, she is seeing the loss of or a higher cost for those benefits. According to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, health-insurance deductibles have gone up over 200% since 2008, with premiums up 55%, but wages are only up 26%, and inflation is far lower, at 17%. Furthermore, plenty of people work multiple jobs without benefits, or are caregivers for kids or the elderly, or don’t have a local employer who offers health insurance. With the passage of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) in 1986, the United States government decided that health care is a kind of right. If a person shows up at an emergency room, she can’t be turned away if she needs services. The outcome is that a whole class of citizens has nowhere to go for health care except the most expensive place in town. If they can’t pay, the hospital will have to shift the costs somehow to those who can. Hence, we have an inequitable, inefficient, opaque system. It’s ripe for profiteers to trade shiny favors for overpriced goods. It’s a network full of holes and gaps.

Why can’t it work out?

Companies and government-based employers can no longer afford pensions. They can’t afford insurance. Annually, they negotiate plans in which deductibles rise, contributions rise, and services and providers are limited. Spouses are dropped. Individuals place their children in Children’s Health Insurance Programs (CHIP) for coverage. They forego care, stress out, avoid preventative self-care options, and can’t find the time or information to count their own costs. Even with the ACA covering more people, the coverage may not be better or affordable. It depends on the state and its politicians who hold the power to make the options viable or prohibitive.

Who’s being paternalistic?

If Senator Braun says that it is health-care providers in the system who are being paternalistic, we might push back on that. He also points out that he, as a business owner, set up a program that worked for him, rather than for his employees. That’s a form of paternalism. He and other leaders decry a national health care, single-payer, or universal system as governmental paternalism. When that critique falls on deaf ears, they trot out the word “socialism” to besmirch the idea. It could be as easily framed as good citizenship, a civic duty, a humane part of our national identity and unity that we the people create a system that has fewer gaps, fewer profiteers, and acknowledges what we already practice, albeit poorly.

Providing access to health care is right. Letting people die between emergency-room visits is no more humane than leaving them in poorhouses untreated for acute diseases—the option of the pre-industrial era.

Also, providing universal health care is just fiscally smart in the long run. We are already paying for medical care for our poor brothers and sisters, but not as fellow citizens united. Single-payer health care will cost more in taxes, but these can be investigated and negotiated. The provision of some procedures will raise moral dilemmas, but other nations have found a way.

The United States prides itself on its leadership and innovation. In the area of health care, we have some housekeeping and catching up to do. The health and welfare section of the American Solidarity Party platform calls for “[d]iverse efforts across this country to secure universal health care access, affordability and outcomes, including single-payer health initiatives, healthcare cooperatives, and hybrid systems at the state and national level.” Naomi’s family would agree.

Naomi is a real person. Everyone in this country probably knows a “Naomi”; the particular circumstances might be somewhat different, but her reality is universal.

Maria Reynolds-Weir writes, teaches high school, lives near Indianapolis, Indiana, and is a clergy wife passionate about serving the least of these in word and deed. She serves on the board of Raise and Restore, an urban ministry, and Achaius Ranch, which ministers to youth. She’s contributed to Relevant Magazine, The Handmaiden (an Orthodox journal for women), the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s So It Goes, and the anthology Enduring Love. Her poetry has won the Laurie Mansell Reich Poetry Prize and has appeared in Poetry South.

Member Perspectives: The Economics of Poverty

The strength of the American Solidarity Party will always be our passionate defense of our four principles of respect for life, social justice, environmental stewardship, and a more peaceful world. However, it can also come from how we respectfully argue our positions on other issues that challenge our communities. Here, ASP member Sarah Field offers some thoughts on the economics of poverty.

By Sarah Field

Why is poverty so widespread in a country as wealthy as the USA? Why don’t the poor just get better jobs? Have government programs encouraged laziness? Do we need better incentives to get people off the public dole? Or are people trapped in a system they are powerless to escape?

I’m not an economist or an expert, but I’ve been following the topic for a few years now, and I’ve come to a few conclusions. Hear me out, and then let me know what you think!

People Don’t Stay Poor Because It’s Easy

Every now and then, a well-meaning friend will post a meme or an article describing the dangers of government supporting the poor. Poor people are social parasites, getting free food, free housing, free college, and free healthcare, all at the expense of their hardworking, more responsible counterparts! It’s not uncommon for someone to chime in with some corroborating anecdote. I know someone like that—living off the government and begging for handouts, but I notice she’s got a cell phone, eats good food, wears nice clothes, drives a nice car, and keeps having kids. These people clearly don’t know what it really means to be poor [insert comparison made to a developing nation or the Great Depression], and certainly don’t know how to practice frugality. At the very least, if they had any self-control whatsoever, they wouldn’t have all those kids! But this is what we get when the government offers handouts to anyone who doesn’t have the gumption to make it on their own. It’s just too good a deal for these freeloaders to pass up!

A whole framework of blame is difficult to take apart piece by piece. But a few thoughts are important to keep in mind:

  • The government doesn’t just give free money to anyone who doesn’t want to work. While the rules vary from state to state, generally speaking, getting assistance is contingent on things like being functionally broke (say, no more than about $2,000 in assets), having a net income at or below the current poverty level for the size of your household, and having a job, actively seeking employment, being a caregiver (in certain situations), or being disabled. And you can’t just say you fit the qualifications; you have to be able to prove it. In some states, you must also pass a drug test in order to qualify.
  • Disability is particularly difficult to qualify for. Conventional wisdom says that getting approved for benefits typically requires the assistance of a lawyer, who of course gets a cut for his or her services. There are plenty of conditions which could hinder you from getting a good job, but are not considered severe enough for you to qualify for disability benefits.
  • Higher education is often a requirement to get a better job. But going to college on the government dime comes with high expectations. If your grades, attendance, or class completion rates are not up to standards, you could very easily end up with a nasty debt and nothing to show for it. Scraping by with barely passing grades won’t cut it; you have to be a good student, which is hardly the image depicted in these memes.
  • Cell phones and cars may be luxury items in certain places and circumstances, but try getting a job without some mode of transportation or contact number before you judge others for having them. Also, loan companies don’t want to help you buy an older, less expensive car, and may charge higher interest rates or outright refuse the loan. Understandably, they want to make sure the vehicle has a decent chance of outliving the loan. In short, the line between luxury and necessity is not always where it seems to be at first glance.
  • Perhaps frugality is a lost art. But the occasional special meal or nice second-hand outfit is not terribly expensive compared to non-negotiables like housing, utilities, and transportation. You may not even be allowed to keep your kids if you don’t maintain a certain basic standard of living determined by the government.
  • Speaking of kids, they are a natural part of life, one of the most basic elements of being human—dare I say, a part of God’s expressed plan for mankind. The idea that they are a luxury item is a relatively new one, promoted by Planned Parenthood and other organizations that may or may not draw a line between preventing pregnancy and providing abortions, between assisting those in need and promoting eugenics. Do we really want to be part of a movement that either despises life at its most vulnerable or discourages the poor from something as basic as a normal marriage?

In reality, nobody lives a life of ease at the expense of the government. People get government assistance because they need it in order to survive. They may be surviving at a higher standard of living than their counterparts in Uganda or Haiti, but they could still be precariously close to going bankrupt, living on the streets, suffering from a preventable (and potentially contagious) disease, losing their kids, or being unable to pay a fine, which could result in jail time.

Poverty Hurts Everyone—Not Just the Poor

A common theme among anti-poverty memes is the role of government. Typically, the assumption seems to be that the less we help the poor, the better—unless you’re a politician running for election. If only the government would stop encouraging these behaviors with so many support programs, we wouldn’t have this problem! If you want to get rid of animal pests, you quit feeding them. How hard is that to figure out? But of course, we are stuck with this horrible blight on our economy because all these freeloaders keep voting for the politicians who support them, and politicians only care about getting votes.

Aside from the dubious claims that the poor vote only for politicians who promise handouts, what these memes don’t take into account is the fact that poverty hurts everyone. Think about this: What happens when the poor go bankrupt? Lose their homes? Catch communicable diseases? What happens when they end up in jail? Or when their kids end up in foster care? What happens to the next generation when they grow up without stable homes and families? Every one of these “personal” crises ultimately costs society as a whole.

Therefore, to suggest that the only reason the government supports assistance programs is in order to get votes is to ignore real problems that affect everyone. Programs that keep the poor more or less afloat are cheaper, in the long run, than programs to rescue them from circumstances far more dire.

But they could at least work hard like everybody else and get a better job! Of course they can’t expect to start out as managers. But that’s how the system works. You save your money, work your way up the ladder, and eventually you have a healthy middle-class income. Unemployment rates aren’t even all that high right now. Surely there is no excuse for anyone to live in chronic poverty. We’re just giving people the wrong incentives!

I’ll address these concerns in the next two sections.

Means-Based Welfare Discourages Incremental Improvements

Suppose you are a currently making $2,000 per month before taxes. In addition to your income from whatever job(s) you have, you get $200 per month in food stamps, and your family healthcare needs are covered by Medicaid. Now, suppose you get a better job or a nice raise and start making $2,500 per month. You go home rejoicing that, finally, things are looking up! Unfortunately, this pushes you right over the limit for assistance. Gone are the food stamps, and you have to go to another form of health insurance, with a regular monthly payment and a hefty deductible. Your tax rate also goes up, so you bring home less of what you make. Oh, and maybe your new position requires new clothes (employees often have to pay for their own uniforms), more expensive transportation, or some other up-front investment on your part. All of a sudden, the extra money has completely evaporated! You were actually more financially stable before you got the better job.

Though these numbers are hypothetical, they illustrate what many people in the grip of poverty face. All too often, an incremental improvement in income is going to hurt them, rather than help them. (And this can even be a problem when a child in the household gets his or her first job.)

But suppose you anticipate this and start scrimping and pinching pennies so as to have a rainy-day fund before you take the plunge. Or maybe you just want to save up for a car so as to avoid exorbitant financing rates. Smart move, right? Well, you have to be careful about doing this, too. If you have too much in your bank account at the next evaluation, you could lose your welfare benefits on that basis as well!

Long story short, you may not like being on government assistance, but you have to do what you can to survive. There’s simply no point in quixotically refusing assistance, only to end up on the streets or going bankrupt.

The Poor Do Not Control Poverty Rates

It’s true that the unemployment rate is not what it was ten years ago. But having a job and not needing assistance are two very different things. Indeed, a good portion of the jobs currently available pay barely enough to support a single adult, let alone a family. Let’s take a look at some statistics to get an idea of just how many jobs do not provide a living wage.

Take the $15 per hour threshold that many suggest should be the new minimum wage. One source reports that 42.4% of American workers make less than this level per hour. Even at forty hours per week (with no days off), that’s equivalent to an annual income of less than $31,500 before taxes. At thirty-five hours per week (still considered full-time work) the worker gets less than $27,500 per year. For a couple with three kids, an annual income of $27,500 is below the federal poverty threshold. Further, of the 42.4% making less than $15 per hour, only about 12.4% make significantly more than minimum wage. There aren’t too many folks who can survive on $7.25 per hour without assistance. Even with two incomes, it’s going to be tough.

In recent years, more than 15% of American workers have been employed part-time, meaning they work fewer than thirty-five hours per week. Since many job-related benefits are tied to being a full-time worker, part-time workers are less likely to get paid sick time, let alone health insurance through their employer. While working more than one part-time job seems like it ought to be doable, many such jobs require a level of flexibility that is difficult to achieve while holding another job. And you still don’t get benefits or overtime by virtue of working two or more part-time jobs.

In light of the above, we see that a huge chunk of the population can only rise above the poverty threshold by either working ridiculously long hours, or having two incomes, or both. If they have children, this means farming their kids out to daycare, which in turn means they have to earn more money just to break even. There are other options, of course. If the parents work opposite shifts, they can watch their own kids, although they may get very little time to build a healthy relationship with each other. And if they live near family or other willing helpers, or qualify for some kind of assistance, the costs can be lowered, but that doesn’t solve the “social parasite” stigma.

Microeconomics tells us that any one of these people could work extra hard, maybe get a degree or develop some new skill, and eventually get a better job. But macroeconomics tells us that, for a better job to open up, someone else must die, retire, get fired, or quit. As a general rule, for any person who goes up the ladder, someone else must go down.

Of course, there are ways this can be shifted: through businesses creating more jobs, or making lousy jobs into better jobs, and so forth. Better matching of training to available good jobs would also be legitimately helpful, if only we could better predict the future! Some people can even break out of the cycle by successfully creating their own businesses—but that generally requires some kind of starting capital, and success rates are notoriously low. In short, the average person in poverty hasn’t the slightest control over real shifts in the number of available good jobs.

Simply giving the poor better “incentives” to get off the government dole is not going to solve this problem.

So, What Can We Do to Get People out of Poverty?

First, let’s stop treating poverty like a moral failure. Most of the poor are working very hard to provide essential services for society. They answer telephones and provide food service and hospitality. They are cashiers, nurse aides, and janitors. Some of them work in local government, keeping your taxes low, and some serve in our military. Don’t want to pay more for these services? Then have the grace not to complain when the government subsidizes these (and many other) industries in the form of welfare!

But we must do more than merely acknowledge that we need these people and that we benefit from their hardship. We must do more than accept that our present economy relies on working beggars. Justice demands that we ensure people get a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.

Again, I’m not an economic expert, but there are political actions that could help. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

One popular option is to raise the minimum wage. This should greatly increase the self-sufficiency of the poor, reducing the amount the government must spend on welfare assistance. But it could put a considerable burden on businesses and institutions that can’t actually afford to pay higher wages—which could lead to fewer total jobs as owners and managers either take drastic measures to stay afloat or go under. And it eliminates lower-paying options, even for basic entry-level positions that may be ideal for those who are just learning the ropes and don’t need to support themselves yet, let alone a family. Ultimately, many fear that raising the minimum wage will hasten a higher cost of living for everyone, as higher costs of production eventually get passed on to consumers. It’s only a matter of time until $15 per hour in the dollars of the future is no better than $8 per hour in today’s dollars. Perhaps one way to mitigate some of these concerns would be to generally raise minimum wage but permit companies to have a certain percentage of designated entry-level positions or employees at any given time. This would allow for some jobs to still pay lower wages, but in fewer numbers.

Another option might be for the government to incentivize smaller ratios between the highest and lowest paying jobs within a company. In this system, CEOs would make less, while line workers would make more. But how much real difference would it make? Would companies struggle to find talent for top positions? Would they find loopholes in the form of more disparate benefits? Are CEOs really the problem, or is it shareholders?

Perhaps the government could subsidize certain types of industries with tax breaks and credits for paying higher wages so that workers could receive fair compensation without overburdening companies, raising prices, or bearing the brunt of the stigma of “living off of handouts.” Of course, that assumes, perhaps naively, that such subsidies would in fact be passed along to workers. It also leaves open the question of who would decide which industries would be subsidized, and on what basis.

​Another option that has been gaining momentum is a universal basic income (UBI) or a citizen’s dividend. This is an amount the government would simply pay to everybody, regardless of need. In theory, if the amount were set high enough, it could replace other assistance programs, cutting out much of the overhead needed to determine who is or isn’t eligible for them, and mitigating concerns about lost benefits linked to pay increases. It would allow businesses to continue to pay people what they can afford, while giving individuals more choices in what kind of job to work (or whether to have one parent stay home with the children in lieu of sending them to daycare). Hopefully, it would help to alleviate animosity from those who don’t get assistance towards those who do. But for those whose greatest concern is that government assistance promotes lazy habits, it is anathema. There are also concerns about how it would be funded. And finally, it is unclear what other unintended consequences could result.

We could also tweak our means-based system to be phased out more gradually. In particular, why would we encourage middle-class workers to save upwards of $10,000 for a rainy day (let alone for retirement) but kick people off Medicaid and food stamps for having a fraction of that amount? It’s almost as if the goal is to keep people as vulnerable as possible so they have to keep coming back for more help. Low asset ceilings are especially risky for people with frequent, chronic, or life-threatening health problems, among whom universal affordable health care would be extremely helpful—for maintaining not only health, but also financial stability.


We may not have all the answers yet. But we must recognize that no government program makes it easy to be poor. We must acknowledge that poverty is as harmful for society collectively as it is for poor people individually. We must stop blaming the poor for a lack of sufficient jobs, and we must stop penalizing them for planning ahead and getting better jobs. Most importantly of all, we must get serious about ensuring that all people who are willing to work can support themselves and their families.

An older version of this article was previously published at

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