Subsidiarity and Family Policy

Andy Smarick

Summer 2022

In the last decade, portions of the political right in America have warmed to the idea of a muscular central government. These strands of statism — known variously as nationalism, populism, integralism, industrial planning, common-good capitalism, and common-good constitutionalism — are connected by their adherents' belief that, were the correct people given a great deal more power to tame elites, markets, Big Tech, liberalism, culture, etc., conservatism could finally rack up some "wins."

The movement is motivated by the view that recent-vintage American conservatism has focused too much on process and not enough on substance. That is, the right's traditional reliance on individual freedom, capitalism, originalism, civil society, and positive law didn't solve — and may have in fact exacerbated — our most serious problems.

This big-state mindset has migrated into family policy, with some on the right advocating baby bonuses, expanded federal support for child care, and federal child allowances — monthly cash payments to those with children. Perhaps most prominently, in 2021, Republican Senator Mitt Romney proposed replacing much of the federal government's need-based, work-incentivizing welfare system with regular checks from Washington to families, regardless of whether the parents are employed.

Romney's proposal is important not only because it breaks with conservative orthodoxy; it also typifies the new substance-over-process approach. As the thinking goes, American families need financial help, so we should give them money as directly and regularly as possible without worrying so much about formalities like the 10th Amendment, the risk of fostering dependency, and the prospect of further entrenching a centralized, redistributionist state.

There are many reasons for conservatives to stand against the new statism, perhaps foremost among them being the fact that we don't have governing processes merely for process's sake, but because sound processes are instrumental to sound outcomes — free markets efficiently allocate resources, close-to-home government governs responsively and practically, and charitable support helps people in ways that state support cannot. Proper processes also respect the prerogatives, and therefore the inherent dignity, of different entities in society — federalism respects states as sovereign bodies, liberty protections respect people's rights as individuals, textualism respects the authority of voters, the preservation of a diverse civil society respects the autonomy of distinct communities, and so on. Thus, the wrong approach to family policy — one that gives short shrift to how governing is done — risks distorting the societal roles of the family, government bodies, and the variety of mediating institutions in between, all while leading to poor outcomes.

But if some American families need support — and they do — what is the right way for public leaders to engage on the issue?

The principle of subsidiarity can be of enormous help on this question. It recognizes the family as the cornerstone of society while offering a coherent vision of the duties and authorities of the government and other institutions. This includes the aid that different social bodies owe to one another as well as the limits on such support. From subsidiarity, we can derive six governing rules of thumb that will enable us to appreciate such things as what the New Deal and the Great Society got wrong, why the welfare reforms of 1996 were so valuable, why state family-focused policies that operate through non-profits are sound, and why today's proposals for child allowances and a universal basic income are misguided.


To appreciate why family policy is getting renewed attention — and why public leaders need rules of thumb for how government should engage on the issue — we should begin by outlining some of the challenges today's families face.

One area of concern is the large percentage of children born and raised outside of stable two-parent families. Today, about two in five births occur outside of marriage — a figure that is significantly higher among younger, less educated, and minority adults. Because of divorce and other life circumstances, many children born into married families are later raised in households without both parents. In 1968, 85% of children lived with both parents; by 2020, the number had dropped to 70%. Today, more black children in America are raised in one-parent households than in households with both biological parents.

At the same time, our nation is suffering a serious drop in the number of children being born. Birth rates hit a peak during the Baby Boom that followed World War II but have been falling ever since — and falling quickly in more recent decades. The Great Recession and the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated this decline over the last generation: Today's birth rate is about 20% lower than it was in 2007. The year 2020 saw the lowest fertility rate in U.S. history.

Falling birth rates are at least partially attributable to another problem: our declining marriage rates. Although Americans are divorcing at lower rates than they have been in recent decades, they are marrying less often, too. In 2020, the United States experienced its lowest marriage rate ever recorded. Moreover, women are delaying both marriage and childbearing — and consequently are likely to have fewer children in total.

Socioeconomic status is an important facet of these trends. Marriage rates used to be relatively similar among groups with different income levels, but in recent decades, marriage has become something of a luxury good, seen more often among wealthier and more educated individuals than poorer and less educated ones. Even middle-income adults are significantly less likely to be married than they were several decades ago. The effects of this pattern can ripple across generations: Children of wealthy parents are very likely to be born into and raised in married households, while children of less affluent parents are significantly less so. And children of low-income families — especially boys — are less likely to marry as adults than their peers from higher-income ones.

This trend has implications for social and economic equality more broadly. Marriage stabilizes families, increases the likelihood that parents will stay together, and causes men to work more and adopt more family-friendly habits. It also provides a foundation for children's later success: Married-couple families are correlated with an array of important child outcomes, including positive social and cognitive development, further progress in school, avoidance of incarceration, and higher incomes later in life. Though the legacy of racial discrimination continues to adversely affect black families, black children from intact families do better on a range of outcomes than white children raised in single-parent homes. Marriage also has a way of stabilizing communities. When a neighborhood has more marriages, it benefits in terms of income, economic mobility, and public safety. Communities at large can also benefit from a critical mass of fathers.

Of course, many other issues could be considered top-tier family concerns. The availability of high-quality schools and affordable child care are evergreen family issues. Though childhood poverty rates have fallen in recent years, as of 2020, 16% of Americans under 18 were still classified as poor. Employers aren't required to provide paid family leave, even though most Americans think they should. Boys and young men are particularly vulnerable today: Male participation in the labor force is significantly lower than it was decades ago, men are falling further behind women in rates of college attendance and graduation, men have disproportionately succumbed to deaths of despair, and boys appear to struggle more than girls when they are raised in poverty or in single-parent families.

It should be noted that not everyone agrees on what constitutes a family problem. Some observers are not concerned about the decline in births, believing a smaller human footprint is the proper response to climate change. In fact, surveys indicate that some Americans are not having children due to environmental concerns. Others believe the decreased fertility rate is a cost worth bearing if it's the consequence of women having more control over their lives. If women are completing more years of schooling, choosing to work longer hours, and delaying marriage and childbearing to advance their careers, the argument goes, then a society with fewer children is simply a byproduct of social progress.

Even if there were a consensus on the problems, there are legitimate concerns about empowering the state to shape family life. Some argue that if free individuals choose to, say, not marry or have no children, then the state should respect their private decisions. Others are wary of distant government administrators influencing marriage rates and deciding how many children families should have. Inviting the government into fundamental decisions about the family also undermines the family's status as an independent source of security, loyalty, and meaning, as well as its role as a bulwark against the state.


We are not the first generation to be concerned about the American family. Throughout our history, Americans have focused on both the challenges of particular moments (e.g., alcohol abuse or welfare dependence) and recurring themes (e.g., helping children avoid violence and poverty). The nation's responses reflect the long-term domestic-policy trend of increased centralization and diminished roles for mediating institutions. A small set of examples can serve to make the point.

The earliest family efforts in America were locally led. From the start, many towns provided various supports to families in need, and our first public schools (the mid-19th century "common schools") were locally funded and governed. The progressive era of the following decades ushered in family-focused programs — generally at the local and state levels — related to child labor, juvenile justice, child-protective services, work hours, workplace safety, and more. Throughout this period, many states and localities developed programs for adoption, foster care, and "mothers' pensions" to financially support poor single mothers.

Power increasingly flowed to Washington throughout the first decades of the 20th century. The national experiment with Prohibition, for instance, was motivated by family suffering caused by excessive drinking. Under the New Deal, the federal government launched, among countless other initiatives, the Federal Housing Administration to facilitate home financing and catalyze home construction, the Social Security Act to support elderly family members, and what became known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which provided welfare payments to impoverished families. Other New Deal-era efforts included jobs and workforce-training programs designed to help stabilize family finances, in addition to nursery schools and child-labor rules.

The post-war period saw the flowering of the GI Bill, which enabled millions of veterans to receive post-secondary education. In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower established the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. The Great Society era saw the passage of Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, Pell Grants, the Job Corps, and food stamps. It also provided federal funding for low-income schools, consumer protections, pregnant women, infant care, pediatric clinics, foster care, and expanded child-welfare services.

The centralization of family policy continued as the century wore on. About three years after Richard Nixon declared war on drugs in 1971, the federal government passed a law related to child-abuse prevention and treatment. The supplemental food program for needy women, infants, and children was piloted in 1972 and made permanent in 1975. The Earned Income Tax Credit also became law that year and was expanded several times thereafter. And in 1979, the U.S. Department of Education split from the Health, Education and Welfare department to become an independent entity.

Additional family-oriented laws passed throughout the 1980s and into the new millennium. These included the National Minimum Drinking Age Act (1984), the Family Support Act (1988), the Child Care and Development Block Grant (1990), the Children's Television Act (1990), the Family and Medical Leave Act (1993), the Violence Against Women Act (1994), the State Children's Health Insurance Program (1997), and the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act (2006).

The question lingering in the background of all these family policies is one of duty and authority: Which entities ought to do what? There are legal and constitutional considerations, as the enumeration of federal powers in the U.S. Constitution and the 10th Amendment limit Washington's authority to intervene in state and local matters. There are also practical considerations, such as the obtuseness and clumsiness of distant, uniform programs; the limited resources of some local governments; the economies of scale inherent to larger initiatives; and the personal, tailored approaches that close-to-home agencies allow. Finally, there are moral considerations, such as the belief that individuals and families ought to do some things for themselves, that community-based groups ought to be the first responders to families in need, and that public authorities bear some responsibility for the common good.

As a result, today's conservatives find themselves in a bind. They want to help families, but they also worry about continuing America's dangerous pattern of centralizing power, enervating state and local governments, and robbing civil-society bodies of their purpose. They believe that individuals, families, and community-based groups have moral obligations to one another and to society at large, but they want the government to do its part as well. They would prefer strong local governments and non-profits to take the lead on these matters, but they recognize that Washington has power, scale, and resources on its side.

So how should American conservatives resolve this ambivalence? How should we think about power, duty, support, and the needs of the family?

On these questions and others, subsidiarity can guide us.


Subsidiarity is a principle of Catholic social teaching. In political contexts, it is often considered a synonym for "decentralization," but it is more than that: It describes the relationship among different social institutions, as well as the inherent power and duties of each. Subsidiarity can thus be better thought of as describing the proper distribution of authority.

Subsidiarity makes clear that individuals, families, unions, businesses, and governments have natural — and different — spheres of influence and obligation. Its mosaic-style arrangement of powers and duties, as Steven Calabresi and Lucy Bickford point out, is akin to America's system of constitutional federalism, which consists of distributed power and separate spheres of sovereignty. And like the American system, under subsidiarity, a central body does not delegate its authority to others; each entity's powers and duties are innate. As such, an institution can go wrong both by failing to do what is expected of it and by encroaching on others' spheres of influence.

The social order implied by subsidiarity would have been assumed in pre-modern times. As philosophy professor Joshua Hochschild observes, "before the rise of the nation state, familial, feudal, guild, and other organic and local relationships would have ensured that the principle of subsidiarity was more or less naturally observed." But during the late 19th century, central governments began consolidating power, and enormous corporations started playing a growing role in public life. "[A]s the shadow of totalitarianism lengthened across Europe," observed George Weigel, the development of subsidiarity as a principle of Catholic social teaching offered "a check against the tendency of all modern states to concentrate power at the center."

The Catechism distills the many statements about subsidiarity into two core statements. The first puts forth the principle that "a community of a higher order should not assume the task belonging to a community of a lower order and deprive it of its authority. It should rather support it in case of need." The second asserts that "neither the state nor any larger society should substitute itself for the initiative and responsibility of individuals and intermediary bodies." When combined, these statements convey subsidiarity's core tenets: Society is made up of lower- and higher-order communities ranging from individuals to intermediary bodies up to government entities; and lower-order communities have authorities, initiatives, tasks, and responsibilities that larger-order communities must respect.

Understandably, protecting the family has been central to subsidiarity since the beginning. In the 1891 encyclical that first articulated the ideas that would coalesce into subsidiarity, Pope Leo XIII described as "a great and pernicious error" the argument that the state "should at its option intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family and the household." The state could provide aid to a family in "exceeding distress" if the family was without other support and unable to extricate itself from its "extreme necessity," but "the rulers of the commonwealth must go no further; here, nature bids them stop." "Paternal authority," he declared, "can be neither abolished nor absorbed by the State."

As stated in the Catechism, subsidiarity "sets limits for state intervention." Why? Because "[e]xcessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative." In 1961, Pope John XXIII recognized the "insistent demands on those in authority — since they are responsible for the common good — to increase the degree and scope of their activities in the economic sphere." Nonetheless, he held that state power "must never be exerted to the extent of depriving the individual citizen of his freedom of action." Saint John Paul II explained that "[b]y intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies." John XXIII put it more bluntly: "Experience has shown that where personal initiative is lacking, political tyranny ensues."

Limiting the state doesn't mean that important needs must go unmet, however. Subsidiarity ensures this in three ways. First, it asserts that all entities have non-transferable duties they are obligated to carry out. Individuals, for example, are expected to behave ethically and to participate in family and public life. Such participation — which is "inherent in the dignity of the human person" — begins by "taking charge of the areas for which one assumes personal responsibility." John XXIII observed that the individual is "primarily responsible for his own upkeep and that of his family." By obliging people to work and care for themselves and their families, subsidiarity situates some social responsibilities at the individual level.

Second, subsidiarity requires individuals and other lower-order entities to resist interference by higher-order ones. As Hochschild puts it, lower-order associations have the "burden of keep proper functions from being taken over by higher associations." By limiting the need for state intervention, subsidiarity keeps social arrangements in balance.

Third, subsidiarity recognizes that all entities occasionally need help. But instead of directing them to turn to the state for assistance, subsidiarity obligates these entities to help one another, and explains how this web of support should operate.


The etymology of subsidiarity, according to Catholic scholar Bruno Manno, "includes notions of support, aid and help in standing up." It is, in a sense, a system for mutual but limited dependence. F. Russell Hittinger agrees: Subsidiarity, he asserts, "is nothing other than the principle that, when aid be given, it not remove or destroy the authority or functions (munera) proper to the society being assisted." Assistance, therefore, must be forthcoming — but it must also be bounded.

Solidarity — a complementary principle to subsidiarity — emphasizes the duties that all entities owe to one another. Pope Benedict XVI wrote that solidarity "is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone." Some may characterize this as a justification for statism (along the lines of, "we must help, the government is 'we,' therefore the government must help"), but Benedict XVI also observed that solidarity must be considered with subsidiarity's rules in mind. Delegating to the state the responsibilities people owe to one another, he declared, "gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need." His successor, Pope Francis, concurs: "[T]here is no true solidarity," he proclaimed, "without social participation, without the contribution of intermediary bodies: families, associations, cooperatives, small businesses, and other expressions of society."

Under subsidiarity, government is by no means prohibited from providing aid; it is simply kept in its lane. When Francis acknowledges the greater responsibility for the common good held by public leaders who wield great power, he does so while discussing the necessity of developing the support capabilities at every level of society, and never empowers the state to assume other entities' roles. Similarly, while John XXIII defended a role for the government in the economy (due to the "exigencies of the common good"), he explained that the state must be limited and that "its guiding principle must be the 'principle of subsidiary function.'"

One of the government's roles under subsidiarity is to ensure an environment of plural social forms, or varied ways for individuals to cooperate. After all, power and duty can only be distributed when there are entities to assume them. Strong support for associations is thus found throughout Catholic social teaching. Benedict XVI wrote that "[s]ubsidiarity is first and foremost a form of assistance to the human person via the autonomy of intermediate bodies." Leo XIII described the "natural impulse" of individuals to form various societies with different purposes, including families, businesses, religious orders, and "enumerated societies for mutual help" — labor unions and organizations to aid the poor, the sick, and the elderly. The Catechism explains that individuals need to live in societies made of naturally formed communities, and that families and the civic community are necessary components of a healthy society. Francis described the development of a variety of intermediate groups — including the family, "the basic cell of society" — as a contributor to the common good. Society ensures "social justice," according to the Catechism, when it fosters the conditions "that allow associations or individuals to obtain what is their due, according to their nature and their vocation."

Accordingly, Leo XIII wrote of the state's duty to protect such associations. John XXIII wrote that public authority must encourage and assist private action and preserve associations' independence. The Catechism notes that it is "the role of the state to defend and promote the common good of civil society, its citizens, and intermediate bodies." These statements mirror the communitarian approach to using government to bolster voluntary associations. As Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus wrote, "[p]ublic policy should protect and foster mediating structures and wherever possible, public policy should utilize mediating structures for the realization of social purposes."

Part of the reason Catholic social teaching is adamant about the importance of mediating bodies and the state's role in protecting them is that history demonstrates the damage governments can do to our voluntary associations. The 1931 document that first articulated subsidiarity, for instance, expressed alarm over the economic and social developments that had hollowed out civil society — "that rich social life which was once highly developed through associations of various kinds." As a result, there remained "only individuals and the State."

Such developments not only limit our natural desire to associate and find support close to home; they also overwhelm the government. "Taking over of all the burdens which the wrecked associations once bore," wrote Pope Pius XI, saddles the state with "almost infinite tasks and duties." For the state to "freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone," public leaders must preserve a "graduated order" among the various associations in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity. "[T]he stronger [the] social authority and effectiveness" of civil society, he concluded, "the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State." Writing in the Catholic Social Science Review, professor L. Joseph Hebert echoed these sentiments: "[T]he authority and vigor of the state, as well as the happiness and prosperity of the commonwealth depend upon the maintenance and fostering of individual and local enterprise and responsibility for social concerns."

A final factor related to the appropriateness of support is how aid influences the receiving entity. One of subsidiarity's fundamental concerns is the inherent authorities and responsibilities of individuals, families, and voluntary associations. Well-meaning support can distort social arrangements by stealing an entity's duties and sapping it of initiative. This is why subsidiarity makes support contingent on need. Since many types of aid can enervate a smaller entity or make it dependent — what John Paul II referred to as "depriving [an entity] of its functions" — that risk should only be assumed if the entity is in distress. We cannot have larger bodies operating ostensibly helpful programs that actually undermine individuals and communities. The ultimate test of legitimate support, therefore, is whether it enables a distressed entity to rebuild its capacity to take on its natural duties.

Benedict XVI wrote of this key connection between need, support, and capacity: "[A]ssistance is offered when individuals or groups are unable to accomplish something on their own, and it is always designed to achieve their emancipation, because it fosters freedom and participation through assumption of responsibility." Francis, too, has described the obligation of higher bodies to provide limited, capacitating aid. Reflecting on the response to the pandemic, he noted that "when single individuals, families, small associations and local communities are not capable of achieving primary objectives, it is right that the highest levels of society, such as the State, should intervene to provide the resources necessary to progress." He described this as the "top to bottom" aspect of subsidiarity. The "bottom to top" aspect, meanwhile, says that "society's leaders must respect and promote the intermediate or lower levels." "In fact," says Francis, "the contribution of individuals, of families, of associations, of businesses, of every intermediary body, and even of the Church, is decisive."

John Paul II described the need-support-capacity dynamic in writing about "exceptional circumstances" in which entities are entirely unable to fulfill their duties. Here, the government is permitted to exercise a "substitute function" by temporarily taking over a family or community's obligations. Such "supplementary interventions," however, "must be as brief as possible, so as to avoid removing permanently from society and business systems the functions which are properly theirs, and so as to avoid enlarging excessively the sphere of State intervention to the detriment of both economic and civil freedom." In writing about a subsidiarity-informed response to a business that mistreats employees or endangers consumers, Professor David Koyzis also offers a substitute-function approach. The state should intervene in these matters, he argues, but the "intervention should be only temporary, until the business in question has successfully put its house in order. Once this has occurred, the state properly withdraws and allows it to function in normal fashion."

With the preceding analysis of subsidiarity in mind, we can fully appreciate the answer from the Catechism when it discusses duties toward the family. Society, it states, "has the duty to support and strengthen marriage and the family." Since the family is one community among the interdependent set of communities, it follows that the various components of society are obligated to support it. Meanwhile, public authority has the duty to "respect, protect and foster" the family. Note that there is a role for the government in this scheme, but it is conspicuously limited; the role is not to direct or control the family, much less absorb its functions, but to foster the conditions most conducive to its flourishing. The Catechism also places support for the family squarely in the context of subsidiarity:

The family must be helped and defended by appropriate social measures. Where families cannot fulfill their responsibilities, other social bodies have the duty of helping them and of supporting the institution of the family. Following the principle of subsidiarity, larger communities should take care not to usurp the family's prerogatives or interfere in its life.


The preceding analysis suggests six rules of thumb for applying the lessons of subsidiarity to family policy. The government must (1) clearly identify a problem, and then it must ensure that any interventions it undertakes are (2) targeted, (3) proximate, (4) limited, (5) rehabilitative, and (6) temporary.

Prior to acting, the state must first identify and articulate the family problem to be solved. There must be no doubt that there is actual need. The state is limited; it cannot blithely act wherever it might like. The state must also identify which entities are not fulfilling their responsibilities.

A state intervention must also be targeted, or directed at the failing entity and its specific failure. A central government may not identify a family-level problem and then absorb the responsibilities of families, local communities, and state governments to address the problem itself. Likewise, government actors should never use an assessment that local voluntary associations — family counseling centers, food banks, schools, and the like — are failing to provide sufficient services as a justification for taking over their roles.

Third, interventions must be undertaken by entities as close to the problem as possible. From Pius's recognition of a "graduated order" of society to John Paul II's statement that "needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them," subsidiarity has prioritized proximity. The principle has been understood to imply concentric circles, with the individual in the center and then progressively larger and more distant bodies — from the family, to the local social sector, to the town, and so on — in successively larger, more distant rings. If the individual is not fulfilling his duties, it is first the family's responsibility to provide support. If the family fails, local associations should be the next entities on the scene. Above all, the central state — the largest, most distant ring — must never leapfrog the mediating bodies between it and the struggling entity. Instead, state actors should focus on strengthening those intermediary bodies so that those closest to the struggling entity can provide support.

Fourth, interventions must be limited in scope. The more extensive a higher-order entity's intervention, the greater the threat of enervating the lower-order entity and rendering it dependent on others. Interventions should be as narrow as possible, helping to solve the problem at hand with the least intrusive tools available. A lower-order entity's weakness must never be seen as an invitation for a higher-order entity to execute sweeping plans.

The fifth rule of thumb is that interventions must be designed to rehabilitate — to help the struggling entity rebuild its capacity to take up its duties. Higher-order entities may not intervene in ways that absorb the lower-order body's tasks, and interventions must never sap the struggling entity's strength or undermine its position in the social arrangement. Policymakers often think in terms of the question, "how do we solve this problem?" Subsidiarity directs them to ask, "how do we enable those tasked with this work to recover the strength to solve this problem?"

Finally, any interventions undertaken must be as brief as possible. A higher-order entity must not take on another entity's work in perpetuity or provide open-ended aid that threatens to render the lower-order body endlessly dependent. If a duty belongs to a lower-order body, it continues to belong to the lower-order body. The higher-order entity's role is to quickly get that entity back on its feet, and then it must step aside.

Which family policies best adhere to these six rules of thumb? It's clear that community associations, parishes, and other close-to-home bodies should be the first responders for families in need. For the most part, these groups function outside of policy; they are generally philanthropically funded and staffed by private actors. The next circle includes local governing institutions — the closest-to-home public entities. Subsidiarity suggests that if families are struggling and not receiving the support needed from those closest to them, local governments should help community-based associations get back on their feet so they can provide aid. This could take the form of temporary grants, access to facilities, encouragement of volunteering and charitable donations, and similar efforts that spur the social sector to take up its duties. If the social sector is failing, the local government must intervene — but always with an eye toward rehabilitation.

Problems arise when local governments absorb the powers and duties of the family and local associations. Examples include providing family services that are direct, permanent, and non-rehabilitative. Local governments may also be tempted to decide that, while the social sector isn't failing per se, it is inefficient and therefore should be replaced by state actors. This, too, violates the teachings of subsidiarity.

If the local government determines it should have an ongoing social-service program that offers temporary aid to families in need, those programs should work through local, non-state bodies to the greatest extent possible. For instance, public policy could provide financial support for community non-profits that operate addiction-recovery programs or local businesses that provide job-related trainings.

The same logic applies to state governments. Even if the state believes it can provide services more efficiently, it should not push aside the social sector or local governments. If families are struggling and not receiving the support they need from entities closest to home, the state should help rehabilitate those entities so they can assist the struggling families. If the state creates a permanent social-service program, it should work with local governments and non-profits to implement offerings. The same applies to the federal government: It should never sidestep the social sector, local governments, and state governments, even if Uncle Sam believes he can provide more efficient services than those lower-order entities.

These rules of thumb help us understand why well-designed welfare programs are entirely consistent with subsidiarity. For example, unemployment benefits aid those out of work and last long enough to help individuals find employment, but don't last so long as to encourage dependence. The benefits also require recipients to look for work, thereby underscoring the personal duty to support oneself and one's family. They thus follow the "problem," "targeted," "limited," "rehabilitative," and "temporary" paradigm. If the benefits are distributed through local or state governments, the program would adhere to the "proximate" requirement as well.

State-level foster-care policies that grant local agencies the primary responsibility of working with children and adults are also consistent with the rules: The higher-order body's intervention is premised on a family's inability to fulfill its duty to a child, only families in need are affected, proximate entities intervene, and a child can be returned to his family once that family is able to care for the child again.

As subsidiarity teaches, families should work and take responsibility for providing for themselves, but sometimes they need assistance. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the traditional federal child tax credit are two praiseworthy efforts that offer assistance while staving off dependence by blending aid with work incentives. The EITC provides cash support to workers with sufficiently low incomes, and as the individual earns more money, the cash payment is reduced. This is a targeted, limited, rehabilitative effort: Only low-income earners are eligible, the payments are relatively small, and the program is designed to help those in need while tacitly encouraging them to increase their own earnings. Similarly, traditional child tax credits reduce the tax liability of parents, thereby rewarding work by allowing families to retain more of their earnings.

The rules of thumb also give us a way of assessing how governments have dealt with work requirements in the past. Mothers' pensions were premised on the belief that abandoned or widowed mothers needed to care for their children instead of working full time. The assumption was that uncontrollable circumstances had rendered the family incapable of fully caring for itself, so it was the duty of a proximate government body to provide targeted, time-limited aid. But the rules also encourage us to ask whether the government should have instead (or also) bolstered the local social sector so that community-based groups could take up their duty to help these families. Similarly, the rules of thumb suggest that, rather than creating federal jobs for the unemployed — thereby circumventing all mediating bodies in between — the New Deal should have helped states, localities, and local associations better serve the families within their jurisdictions.

The rules of thumb also show how poorly designed, centralized welfare programs go wrong. A central government could provide benefits without time limits, that go to the needy and non-needy alike, that don't operate though state or local agencies, and that aren't designed with rehabilitation in mind. The Great Society-era approaches embodied many of these flaws, which the federal welfare-reform initiative of 1996 sought to overhaul. By giving states and localities more power, putting time limits on benefits, and requiring recipients to look for work in order to receive aid, the reforms substantially improved the system along the "proximate," "rehabilitative," and "temporary" dimensions.

Lastly, the rules of thumb show that two of the most prominent family-related proposals today — federal child allowances (regular federal cash payments, regardless of work or earnings, to all parents) and a federal universal basic income (federal cash payments to all) — violate subsidiarity. These programs are not targeted to those in need — all parents or all individuals receive them. They are not proximate — they provide direct cash payments from the national government, thereby pushing aside all mediating bodies in between. They are not limited in scope — they promise hundreds of dollars to recipients on a monthly basis. They are not rehabilitative — they are not designed to help individuals recover their capacity to take up their societal obligations (in fact, they threaten to engender government dependency). And they are not temporary — they last for the entirety of childhood and in perpetuity, respectively.


Subsidiarity requires us to protect the family and support it when it is in need. But that does not justify intrusive, big-government programs flying under the flag of "the common good." Indeed, those on the right advocating for a more muscular, far-reaching centralized government should appreciate that classical liberalism isn't their only obstacle; subsidiarity is, too.

Subsidiarity admonishes us to respect the inherent powers and duties of all layers of society. Applying its lessons to the relationship between families and the state highlights the indispensable role of the communities situated between them. When families struggle, the state's top goal shouldn't be to solve their problems for them; instead, it should focus on strengthening the institutions closest to them so that those institutions can strengthen families in turn.

Such an approach has the benefit of maintaining consistency with our constitutional order. And it supports struggling families in a manner that is consistent with both human dignity and the common good.

Andy Smarick is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.


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