The call to be a “neighbor” – to help those who are in need – is addressed to all people and all institutions. Receiving assistance should enable those in need to reach or return to self-sufficiency and be in a position to help others.
Whether, and to what extent, government should render assistance to those in need depends on the nature of the need and the responsibilities of other institutions.
As part of its calling to promote public justice, government bears responsibility to guard against the emergence of intractable poverty in society and to ensure that appropriate and effective steps are taken to address such poverty.
Government’s main way of addressing poverty should be preventive:
By upholding a just society that includes the protection of civil rights and responsibilities
By ensuring access to effective education, good health care, and decent housing
By fostering conditions for a healthy economy
As part of its responsibility to uphold a just society, government must protect and promote a thriving social sector to help meet diverse welfare needs. Government should fulfill its welfare responsibility in part by underwriting the work of nongovernment organizations (NGOs), which are close to the needs and devoted to alleviating them.
The nation’s welfare obligations do not rest with NGOs alone, because people in dire poverty need help even when their neighbors are not generous or when economic conditions restrict private charity. Moreover, need and wealth are often found in different places. For these reasons, government will at times have to act in ways that go beyond preventive measures and the support of NGOs, for it must address critical conditions that endanger the welfare of society as a whole.
When government does partner with NGOs, it must protect their autonomy and diversity. Many of the NGOs that provide welfare assistance are forthrightly faith-based. In keeping with the First Amendment, government must not discriminate against such groups. Instead, it should grant faith-based organizations the same opportunities offered to all other service groups and protect their distinctive religious character if they become its partners. Government can best honor the religious liberty of persons and families that need public welfare assistance by ensuring that a variety of providers with different philosophies of assistance are available.