As the House of Representatives prepares for debate on welfare legislation this week, the leaders of the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops Saturday denounced parts of the Republican bill that could end cash assistance for many children born out of wedlock, unmarried teenage mothers and legal immigrants.
The bishops said they were speaking not as partisan political lobbyists but in an effort to illuminate “the moral dimensions and human consequences of this debate.”
In the statement Saturday, titled “Moral Principles and Policy Priorities for Welfare Reform,” the bishops agreed that “the status quo is unacceptable” but said the federal government must not abandon its role in fighting poverty. They said the coming debate would be “a test of our nation’s values and our commitment to the ‘least among us.”’
The statement by the Administrative Board of the United States Catholic Conference, the top leadership of the nation’s bishops, echoes the concerns of many Democrats who have criticized the bill on the ground that it would punish children for parents’ behavior.
That view is shared by diverse groups, including supporters and opponents of abortion rights, welfare advocates and civil libertarians.
Despite such opposition, the bill is likely to be passed by the House. Its fate in the Senate, however, is far less certain, and the bishops’ statement, which raises concerns about encouraging abortions by ending subsidies to unwed mothers, could kindle opposition from conservative Republicans opposed to abortion rights.
The bill to be considered by the House would bar the use of federal money to provide cash welfare benefits for a child born to a woman already receiving public assistance. Most states now provide extra money to indigent families for each additional child, and some Republicans say that encourages women to have more babies - a contention disputed by the Children’s Defense Fund and by some economists.
The House bill would also deny cash assistance to children born out of wedlock to women younger than 18, and to the women as well.
The Roman Catholic Church, Catholic Charities USA, the National Right to Life Committee and opponents of abortion like Rep. Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J., say the proposed restrictions on welfare benefits would increase pressures on poor women to have abortions. They say that pressure would be particularly strong in states that pay for Medicaid abortions but not for the costs of rearing an additional child.
The bishops’ criticism of the House bill, while not a surprise, is important because it is likely to influence debate in Congress.