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Cultural Questions Deserving of Debate

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The first presidential debate of the fall gave Americans good insight into the candidates’ perspectives on domestic issues, including the economy, health care and the role of government. But we heard hardly anything about the effect of such policies on our culture. That’s a serious omission.

The government affects behavior when it sets tax rates or defines who can receive welfare benefits or attaches penalties to employers’ decisions about health insurance. Over time, those actions result in patterns that shape American culture.

 In designing the U.S. Constitution, the Founders made certain assumptions about culture and civil society—the institutions such as family, churches and community groups that make up life in America.

They envisioned a vibrant civil society that would nurture individual responsibility and provide care for neighbors. Civil society would provide the self-government that made a limited central government possible, ensuring Americans’ freedom.

That’s why it’s important to take stock of how Washington’s policies are shaping the work ethic and the health of civil society. Here are just two questions that would help shed light on these topics in the upcoming debates:

1. Should all able-bodied recipients be required to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving aid in federal public housing, food stamps and cash assistance programs?

Since the 1960s government has spent nearly $20 trillion on the War on Poverty. The federal government now runs about 80 programs providing aid to the poor. Government at all levels spends nearly $1 trillion annually to fight poverty.

For decades, welfare rolls saw no significant decline and child poverty remained persistently high. In 1996, Congress passed a major reform of one federal welfare program. Signed by President Clinton, welfare reform transformed the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children into a program called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.

The welfare caseload fell by half. Nearly 3 million Americans achieved independence from government. Poverty among children and single mothers dropped to historic lows.

The main reason for these impressive results: establishing work requirements that called for able-bodied adults to work or prepare for work.

Fast forward to July 12. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) guts welfare reform by issuing a new policy claiming authority to waive those work requirements. This action flouts the reform law, which Congress specifically designed to prohibit waivers of these tough work requirements. 

The move also tramples on popular opinion, since polls continue to show overwhelming support for the requirements. Americans are generous toward neighbors truly in need, but also expect them to exercise personal responsibility and try to improve their situation.

We need a robust discussion on whether Congress should not only restore and strengthen the work requirements, but expand them to other government welfare programs.

2. Under the new health care law, HHS issued a preventive services mandate requiring nearly all employers to cover abortion drugs and contraceptives regardless of religious or moral objection. Shouldn’t Americans be free to live out their faith commitments beyond the four walls of their church—in the public square and in the way they run their businesses or non-profits serving the community?

On Aug. 1, that HHS mandate took effect as part of the law that even President Obama now calls Obamacare. The policy’s “religious exemption” effectively frees only houses of worship from complying.

The mandate forces an impossible choice on other religious groups and family business owners: Violate your conscience or pay a fine of $100 per day per employee for daring to offer a non-compliant health plan.

Dozens of Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Jewish groups, among others, urged President Obama to drop this conscience-crushing mandate. Despite signaling compromise, the administration stood by its mandate. Because of that intransigence, more than 80 religious schools, hospitals, charities and other employers have gone to court to defend their first freedom.

We need serious debate on whether government should allow Americans to choose a health plan that meets their needs and respects their conscience.

Ryan T. Anderson, a colleague at The Heritage Foundation, commented after the first debate that evaluating how policy intersects culture and civil society is at least as important as the nuts and bolts of taxation and regulation, of Medicare and Social Security.

“At the end of the day, culture and the institutions of civil society are what make America great,” Anderson said. “Our government shouldn’t be weakening them.”

Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation and author of the book “Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century.”

First moved on McClatchy Tribune News Wire.

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