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Dorothy Day, does the government have the responsibility to help the poor?

July 13, 2009

According to research featured today by the Pew Research Center, most Democrats (77%) believe that it is the government’s responsibility to “take care of people who can’t take care of themselves,” while only 46% of Republicans agree. Independents were right in the middle at 59%. There was also a 33% gap between the political parties over whether the government should “guarantee food and shelter for all.” 79% of Democrats agreed, compared to 46% of Republicans and 58% of Independents. Thanks to Susan over at Dating Jesus for originally posting this.

It’s easy for me to want to just dismiss the people who answer “no” to those questions as selfish and unconcerned about the plight of the poor. But as soon as I was about to finish this post with a snarky comment about those damn conservatives, I thought of Dorothy Day, a woman who devoted literally every aspect of her life to serving the poor, while constantly advocating for smaller government as a founder of the Catholic Worker movement.

Dorothy Day called herself a Christian socialist, but favored small bodies of organization that took full responsibilities for those in their midst and on their margins. The Catholic Workers were “not opposed to organization, [they] wanted radical decentralization and delegation to smaller bodies and groups what could be done far more humanely and responsibly through mutual aid as well as charity,” writes William Miller in A Harsh and Dreadful Love. If everyone lived as Day did and her followers still do, the question of government assistance for “people who can’t take care of themselves” or to guarantee food and shelter would be obsolete. I’m in a good mood today, so I’ll give some of the people who do not believe the government must help the poor – Democrats and Republicans alike – the benefit of the doubt and hope that they are followers of Dorothy Day.

For more information about Dorothy Day, check out The Long Loneliness, my personal favorite, as well as Selected Writings in the Catholic Worker’s bookstore.

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