Put Out into the Deep

The Challenge of Humane Public Policy

My Dear Brother and Sisters in the Lord

In my master’s degree and doctorate studies on social work, I concentrated on public policy. Back in the early 1980s when I began studying public policy, the various factors of influence were basically the same as they are today; however, the proportion has vastly changed. There are three branches of government on the federal level: legislative, executive and judicial. They all greatly influence public policy. Today, however, it seems that the Supreme Court has greater influence on deciding controverted issues. On the state and local levels, the same balance of powers is at work.

Besides “think tanks,” universities and non-profit organizations, public opinion, which is greatly influenced by print and television news, You Tube videos, and other social media, also helps form public policy. I frequently make the point that freedom of the press and of religion are referred to in the same sentence of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – Amendment I – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Why are these two important issues referred to in the same sentence? My assumption is that both are dedicated to the truth. If religion does not expound the truth about God and the human person, it is false. If the media does not report the truth, it also is not worthy of that guaranteed freedom.

Most recently, we hear the phrase, “fake news.” Allow me to give a personal example about “fake news.” Several months ago, I was accused of offering a bribe to a public official to kill a piece of legislation that would have turned back the statute of limitations in sexual abuse cases that would have affected the ability of the Church to continue its mission. The paper had called to verify the truth and a letter was sent through our attorney that the accusation was patently false, along with an affidavit given by a witness, who was present when the alleged bribe took place, stating that it never happened. The Daily News, however, still printed the accusation cleverly on the front page, saying, “N.Y. pol says Brooklyn bishop tried to bribe her to drop child-abuse reform; diocese calls her allegation ‘patently false.’” This is a good example of “fake news.”

Recently, I heard a report that the media does not bother to check facts when reporting on a story, as it once did, because it is too time consuming and expensive. Rather, the media simply reports what is said, not checking sources or facts for their veracity.

There are two areas of public policy which are influenced today in various ways by the makers of public policy, but most especially by the media.

One is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), often called the Affordable Care Act, and also Obamacare. I once was excoriated in public for calling it Obamacare, saying it was a politically charged statement. Soon after the bill was enacted, it became fashionable to say Obamacare. Now we are back to saying the Affordable Care Act, which President Trump and the Republican Party has pledged to appeal with or without a replacement. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has urged that ACA not be repealed without a replacement that would protect the poor and vulnerable, including immigrants, and safeguards the unborn, and supports conscience rights.

Healthcare is complicated public policy. The first premise for us as Catholic Christians is that healthcare is a basic human right, along with food, housing and education. These are three basic elements for dignified human existence which modern societies have guaranteed to its citizens. Healthcare has become very complicated and costly. This is because it has become a commodity with built-in profit motivation. Healthcare is becoming unaffordable because insurance companies must not only provide it, but also make a profit. We have invented a formidable middle-man who is driving public policy beyond the influence even of the media.

Healthcare insurance began as non-profit organizations formed by community leaders to form insurance entities that would assist members of the community. These, however, have morphed into large insurance conglomerates that are responsible to stockholders to produce a profit. While I am not against the capitalist system, in this case, it seems that it has gone awry. Most people receive their plans through their workplace. However, those who do not must rely on private insurance or the exchanges subsidized by the government as part of the ACA which now will become unavailable in some states because insurance companies cannot make a profit from the Affordable Healthcare Act. The ACA, and here I call it Obamacare, was passed without due consideration of many problematic issues. The careful analysis of how we can afford to provide this basic human right needs to be studied with the collaboration of the two parties – not just the party in power or the opposition.

Another issue that also underlines this untenable public policy formation is the issue of immigration reform. In 1986, I began working in Washington, D.C., for the USCCB for six years during which the legalization act of 1986 was passed with bi-partisan support and cooperation. Unfortunately, because of the non-enforcement of the employer sanctions in part of that legislation, we find ourselves in a worse situation than we did in 1986. The problem of illegal migration is a problem of workplace enforcement. If there were no jobs for undocumented aliens, then they would not come as we saw in the economic downturn of several years ago. Today we see untenable solutions such as building a wall. The problem is not at the frontier or the border, the problem is in the workplace. If we were to enforce employer sanctions where employers would not dare hire any person “under the table” without deducting withholding taxes, we would almost overnight solve the problem of the “so called” illegal migration. What it is, in fact, is undocumented-worker migration since we need these workers. Somehow the message has gotten out to the media from the executive branch that when we expel all of these undocumented workers we will have one-for-one job replacement by American citizens. The majority of economists would not agree with this simplistic understanding of the segmented labor market. There will always be someone at the entry-level jobs and some better jobs.

It is unfortunate that our public policy today is less influenced by thoughtful research than by public opinion formed by the media that has given up in its pursuit of reporting the truth of an issue. I can vouch that this is a world phenomenon, not just limited to the U.S. When I served on the United Nations-sponsored commission, the Global Commission on International Migration, our meetings covered five continents. In each place, the dominant theme was that the media does not fairly represent the reality of migration. We cannot blame the media but they are not part of the solution.

Public policy by definition is an adventure into the deep waters of the formation of a just society. Public policy is meant to bring justice and truth to all of its citizens. Join me in prayer that we try to extricate ourselves from the public policy morass that surrounds us and find a way to form good public policy.

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