Today we feature a reflection by Sister Simone Campbell, SSS on Paul Ryan's new attempt to address poverty. Sister Campbell is executive director of NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, and author of A Nun on the Bus: How All of Us Can Create Hope, Change, and Community.
Representative Paul Ryan is at least talking about poverty in our nation, but he still doesn’t comprehend its causes or the best way to address it. This is despite my individual conversations with him, my testimony before his budget committee, and our 2012 “Nuns on the Bus” trip, which was all about his proposed federal budget cuts to programs that serve people at the economic margins.
His lack of understanding was again evident in his recent op-ed, “A Better Way Up from Poverty,” in The Wall Street Journal. Initially, he sought to undo damage he caused when he labeled people “makers and takers.” He was understandably uncomfortable with “taker” as a descriptor of his mother, who is on Medicare, and himself at age 18, when he attended college using non-needs-based Social Security survivor’s benefits after the death of his father.
While he admitted that these labels were both “insensitive” and “ineffective,” he wasn’t able to expand his thinking into a more insightful analysis of poverty’s causes and cures. He still doesn’t get that we have many families struggling because their wages are far too low—unjust, in fact—and there are not enough jobs. Because his op-ed targeted Wall Street Journal readers, many of whom are powerful business leaders, he missed a golden opportunity to call them to do their part in addressing these twin causes.
This was not simply an oversight. Instead, it’s evidence that he misreads our nation’s founding principles despite his claim otherwise in the op-ed. He also still doesn’t understand our faith’s teachings on economic justice.
Individualism and selfishness were definitely not the core of our nation’s founding principles. Instead, We the People sought to create a more perfect union – one rooted in concern for the common good, not corporate profits or individual greed.
Congressman Ryan and all of us need to reflect on Pope Francis’s economic justice message that government must fulfill its appropriate roles of balancing excesses of the market and ensuring that those who suffer in the cracks of a free market can live in dignity. That is the responsible and faithful way forward.
His op-ed included a tired partisan rehash of previous complaints about government, which he labeled “coercive.” His examples of current government coercion included “bad ideas” like economic stimulus, healthcare reform and antipoverty programs. He claimed that they have been ineffective, doing more harm than good.
In fact, many of his own proposals, as described in his “Expanding Opportunity in America” report, would either make things worse or maintain the status quo. His proposal, for example, to consolidate antipoverty programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps) under state grants would favor local actions even when underfunded or unable to serve all in need.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out that our “nation has made enormous strides in reducing hunger and malnutrition, especially among children, since the late 1960s, when child malnutrition and nutrition-related diseases in some parts of the United States were similar to those in some Third World countries. SNAP’s entitlement nature lies at the heart of this success. The single most troubling aspect of [Ryan’s] Opportunity Grant proposal is its removal of that essential feature from one of the biggest successes in American social policy.”
We all need to spend more time listening to the stories of real people at the economic margins. Only then can everyone fully appreciate the immense value of SNAP, Child Tax Credit, Medicaid, CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program), housing and child care assistance, and other vital programs. Then we can understand that we have made progress but there is more work to be done. We need a bigger imagination to find new ways forward.
At NETWORK, we do agree with Representative Ryan that the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is highly effective and should be expanded to include childless workers and workers as young as 21. But we disagree strongly with his claim that this could serve as an alternative to raising the minimum wage. Both a higher minimum wage and expanded EITC are urgently needed.
Congressman Ryan is willing to condone taxpayer money subsidizing business. Employers who pay low wages can count on the government to pick up the slack through programs such as SNAP, housing assistance, etc. The real free market principle is that business should pay its own costs. That workers can’t live in dignity on salaries they receive is wrong anywhere, but especially in the richest nation on earth.
Government programs mentioned above reduce poverty, save lives, and help families make ends meet. They stabilize families and communities, help create a healthier, more productive workforce, and enable children to perform better in school.
But we have work to do. Our housing policies need to include the 100% instead of focusing on homeowners. Our transportation policies must be expanded well beyond ones that are auto-focused. We need more conversation about how all can benefit.
The fact is, all our policies must serve the 100%, making our entire nation better.
Our faith teaches that individuals, institutions and government have a responsibility to work for the common good. We are taught to follow Jesus’s command that we must stand with people at the margins and address their needs not just out of a sense of charity, but also of justice.
I look forward to further opportunities to engage in dialogue with Representative Ryan about how we can all work together to meet our faith’s demands and the needs of our people.