Sharon Daly Women and children first

From 1978 to 2006 Sharon Daly tried to convince politicians to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and heal the sick through legislation. Fighting bureaucracy, big business, and partisan politics for 28 years could frustrate some, but Daly loved lobbying on behalf of the poor, as she did for the Children’s Defense Fund, the U.S. bishops’ conference, and Catholic Charities USA.

“I’ve loved all my jobs,” Daly says. “I think it’s a miracle—there’s always been somebody to pay me to do what I love to do.”

Her recent retirement from Catholic Charities, where she was vice president of social policy, came reluctantly. If not for health reasons, she would still be on Capitol Hill, taking advantage of the shift in power in Congress to push for improvements in health care, wages, housing, and other legislative issues benefiting the poor.

Even in retirement, Daly remains a passionate, outspoken advocate for the poor and a role model for women seeking justice in society and the church. For these reasons, U.S. Catholic will honor Daly with the 2006 U.S. Catholic Award for Furthering the Cause of Women in February.

Reflecting on your career in legislative advocacy at Catholic Charities, the bishops’ conference, and the Children’s Defense Fund, what are you most proud of?
One thing I worked on at all three places was expanding access to health care for poor people, especially prenatal care for pregnant women and care for children.

Over a period of six or seven years after I joined the bishops’ conference in 1984, Congress very gradually increased eligibility for Medicaid for pregnant women and their children. While other people are just as deserving or in need of health care, the Reagan administration was officially prolife, so it seemed to me that prenatal care and care for children would most likely be successful. I worked with Republican Congressman Henry Hyde from Illinois and other prolife Republicans and Democrats. We were able to help them see this as a prolife issue, even though many of them were generally against government mandates and increased government spending—not big fans of government programs for the poor.

At first, we worked on creating options for the states to expand income eligibility and then mandates. Millions of families got help from that. Moms got early prenatal care that they would not have gotten. Children were born healthier and received care when they were little.

To me health care has been the most important issue, and so I’m very proud of having played a part in expanding it. Now what’s happening, because of a federal law that just passed this year, is that states are able to roll back a lot of those changes and limit the scope of services available to poor people. I worry a lot about the children.

Sharon Daly's issues alert

Budget: I don’t expect huge increases in spending on the programs that I care about. Democrats will be mainly stopping bad things from happening. Because war and weapons systems are eating up a bigger part of the total budget, and if they can’t increase taxes, then how can you increase spending for housing and day care and health care programs for low-income people?

Abortion: Being prolife, to me, is not so much just about the legality of abortion; it’s about how you change the culture. If people can’t afford a place to live, if they don’t have adequate income, health care, or day care, their choices about childbearing are very limited. I hope the Democratic Party will be more inclusive. I don’t think the prolife cause can advance without both parties having a stake in it.

Immigration: I’m very proud of the bishops and Catholic Charities for standing firm on this issue. It’s shocking that we have people here who have no rights. I have hope that big business wants something done on immigration. Republicans are hearing from companies in their districts who employ undocumented people.

Minimum wage: They’ll have to attach the minimum wage to something Bush has to sign, unless they have a veto-proof majority, which is up to the Republicans. What will they learn from the midterm election? There’s nobody out there campaigning in either party for the poor.

Welfare reform: I still think it went too far. Many said during its recent 10-year anniversary that it’s the most successful domestic policy accomplishment of the decade. But the country was very lucky because welfare reform was passed in ’96, when the economy was strong. As soon as the economy got worse, child poverty rates went up at a faster clip than you normally see. Shouldn’t the test of whether welfare reform was successful be whether families are better off, not just whether there are fewer people on welfare?

How were you, as a Catholic lobbyist, able to help bring that about?
As a representative of a Catholic organization, I was always able to talk with prolife members of Congress. The liberal groups didn’t have access to and didn’t like strong prolifers. But I found that people like Henry Hyde are sincere prolifers. They weren’t just against abortion. We were able to convince them that women need health care and family leave. I think only the Catholic community had that kind of access. I knew when the Family and Medical Leave Act passed, it was because the Catholic Church was in support of it. That took away some of the aura of this being a liberal grant or a Great Society program.

As someone who has been able to bridge typically liberal and conservative issues, how do you handle the intense polarization of the country?
I think it’s better for the country when Congress and the administration have to compromise. Most people are sort of in the middle. Social change is better and more lasting when it comes incrementally.

Social Security started out as small program with relatively low benefits. But by the 1970s poverty among the elderly was cut almost in half! Social Security has been hugely successful. Now everybody takes it for granted that the elderly are the least poor in our society.

The present partisan attitude on Capitol Hill is very different from when I first started lobbying. Even during the Reagan administration, when the Republicans controlled the Senate and the Democrats controlled the House, there was a lot of bipartisan work. There hasn’t been compromise recently, and that’s the reason we don’t have comprehensive immigration legislation. We haven’t raised the minimum wage. We haven’t done anything about affordable housing. We’ve only contracted health care, not expanded it. I think the American people didn’t like that, and that’s one reason they voted for change.

The church seems quite polarized as well. What do you think about those bishops who have told Catholics that they need to vote just on the “non-negotiable” prolife and moral issues?
I’m not a theologian or expert in morality, but as somebody who has watched politics for a long time, I think those few bishops who took that course made a strategic error. Whenever bishops appear to be partisan, it undermines their credibility. I don’t think they can emphasize one issue to the exclusion of others if they want Catholics to listen to the church on the fundamental things. And to use an election to publicly declare which politicians are welcome at Communion, I think that’s a misuse of the Eucharist.

I spent all these years wanting the church to be effective in its advocacy. To do so, it needs to stay out of the electoral process and use its influence on policy instead. Listing all the issues in one document, as in the bishops’ “Faithful Citizenship” guides, is valuable. But anything that undermines the church’s effectiveness in achieving the goals that I care about disappoints me.

What has been the biggest disappointment of your career?
The lack of universal access to health care has been my biggest disappointment. I think the Clinton administration proposal destroyed the opportunity. It not only failed, but it poisoned the well for 10 years.

I always hoped that before I retired, we’d have something like Medicare for everyone, even if it wasn’t perfect. But Medicare only has gotten worse

Do you think universal health care is politically feasible?
It certainly won’t happen until after the 2008 election, and then it will depend on whether the elected president will have made health care part of the campaign.

If this year the new Congress comes up with a way of negotiating drug prices for Medicare and Medicaid that shows the country you can do something about cost containment, it might give people hope for something more.

People have to have some hope. But right now they think government is broken, for both parties. Whether it’s Katrina or Iraq or the Medicare prescription drug program, people have this feeling that we can’t do anything right, and I don’t think that’s true. But they’ll have to see something going better in order to persuade them to take a chance. For some people, universal access means they have to risk that their coverage might not be as good as what they have now in order for people who have nothing to have some coverage.

We don’t have a lot of reinforcement for people who are thinking in terms of the common good in our country. There is so much emphasis on what’s good for yourself

Is the public’s skepticism about the political process justified?
Absolutely. First there is the corruption, which everybody agrees is terrible, and then there’s the domination of the political process by legal contributions. People are right to be skeptical, but the answer to that isn’t to stay away from the polls. The answer is to vote and get involved.

But it’s difficult. In most families now, both parents are working, perhaps more than one job each. They don’t have the time to pay attention to politics. And what you see on TV, even on the network news, is only the talking points of the parties. It’s not really any kind of real analysis.

The best thing to do is to go where the politicians are—maybe it’s the Rotary Club or the Chamber of Commerce luncheon. For a $25 ticket, you’ll have a chance to go and look them in their eyes and tell them what you think about the minimum wage or day care or health care or whatever. People need to do that. Sharing your opinion with them in their district or in their state is so much more effective than writing a letter or making a phone call to their staff. My husband and I go to Democratic events and Republican events. We go to everybody’s breakfast and dinner, so that we have that access on issues that we care about

Is that the most effective way for Catholics to get involved?
Everybody should do something. For most people, it’s a lot easier to say a few sentences at the Chamber of Commerce breakfast than to write a letter. People often think letter-writing is intimidating because they don’t know enough about an issue. Then there is the other problem with the mail: The mail is irradiated and inspected, so it’s a mess when it gets to Capitol Hill. Unless you’re sending an e-mail to a particular staff person, I think most of that e-mail from constituents is deleted before it’s ever read.

If you are going to write a letter, it’s important to have only one issue per letter because the letter is only going to get counted for one issue. If you have two or three issues, it may not get counted.

I always told Catholic Charities people, put your letter on letterhead, because that means more—it’s official. And fax it to a particular person in the politician’s office. Find out who is the legislative person responsible for the minimum wage or housing or health care, and fax it to that person who will actually advise the senator or representative on how to vote on that issue.

How can parish justice groups that want to specialize in legislative advocacy do so effectively?
The Just Faith program ( ) is a very effective way of recruiting adult Catholics to advocacy for social justice. It is rooted in the scriptures, the teaching of the church, and people’s sacramental experience. It’s authentically Catholic. But people have to make a huge investment of time, so that’s only going to work for a small percentage of potential groups.

What was difficult about being a lay woman and leader in the church?
The first bishops’ meeting I went to was in November 1984. I walked into this big ballroom full of guys in black suits and gold jewelry.

At that time every department was headed by a priest, except finance and administration. It was not that I was unaware that this was a very clerical institution. But to walk into that room, it did give me pause. “What have I gotten myself into here?” I thought.

I had worked trying to influence Congress for some years by then and was used to a male-dominated Congress, but it was still overwhelming. Very often, when the bishops were working on pastoral letters, I was the only woman, and often, although not always, I was the only lay person. I remember thinking, “I have a big responsibility here.”

I think the bishops and cardinals are like cabinet secretaries and senior White House officials—nobody wants to give them bad news. Nobody wants to contradict the accepted wisdom.

But I was brought up to be outspoken. I was a debater in high school, and my family reinforced that part of my personality. At discussions of pastoral letters, I noticed that the men—the lay men and certainly the priests—did not ever contradict things that bishops or cardinals said. To me it seemed unfortunate that they were making decisions sometimes without all the information.

I think it was a big surprise for the bishops—I could see it in body language—when I would say, “Oh, excuse me, could I point out that, in fact, that’s not how HIV is communicated” or some other bit of information. For some bishops this was an unusual experience.

But I have to say, I didn’t get in trouble for it. I think that’s important. When the bishops started working on that pastoral letter that they never issued on women, many of the women I saw make presentations were so tentative and so deferential, which clearly they had learned to be an effective way of dealing with male leadership in the church. But if you treat them with too much deference, they won’t get how important these issues are. Nothing will change that way.

That’s not how they talk to each other either. Watching bishops fight with each other behind closed doors was a revelation. So I thought it was important to speak up and even to tell them if I thought they were incorrect about something.

I still think that you can’t do that if you are too cautious. You might have a successful career in the church, but you won’t have made a difference

How has your personal experience as a woman influenced your approach as a lobbyist?
I raised two children, and I was a single parent for 12 years between my two marriages. I knew what it was like to not be able to find day care, to miss days of work because there was nobody to take care of the kids, to get health care. The kids and I were on Medicaid for a year. I had some of the problems that poor people have, although never as bad as truly poor people.

I probably brought a little more to it from my own experience. I always tried in my lobbying to talk about the impact on real people. When we worked on welfare reform, I carried a diaper bag around Capitol Hill for two years, with a package of the cheapest diapers that you could find, baby wipes, baby oil, Q-tips, a little outfit, and a little toy to try to get people to see that this is what it costs every month and these were real children we were talking about.

I hate to say this because it sounds so stereotypical, but I do think that women are a little more likely than men to put a positive human face on an issue. I never saw a man lobbying with a diaper bag!

This article appeared in the January 2007 (Volume 72, Number 1; page 18-22) issue of U.S. Catholic.

All active news articles