For another nuanced viewpoint on Paul Ryan's newest anti-poverty plan, we turned to Kim Daniels. Daniels is a senior advisor at Catholic Voices USA and the former spokesperson for the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
When you wake up to find Mother Jones castigating Paul Ryan for his spendthrift, big-government ways, you know something’s changed.
That something is the GOP approach to poverty. On July 24, Congressman Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, unveiled a substantive proposal to strengthen the safety net and help those in need. You don’t have to agree with everything in the Ryan “discussion draft" to recognize it as evidence that the GOP is taking poverty more seriously. Catholics of both parties should welcome this development and see effective anti-poverty efforts as a place to find common ground across party lines.
Mother Jones may have found Ryan’s proposal unfeasible and intrusive, and it had plenty of company. But more interesting were the positive responses – albeit sometimes narrow – from places like Brookings, the Washington Post, the New York Times’ Upshot, and even ThinkProgress. The New Republic felt moved to declare that “Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand Just Got A Divorce.” Among Catholics, Georgetown’s John Carr noted that Ryan has become “less partisan and more knowledgeable,” Catholic Charities president Fr. Larry Snyder called it “a good faith effort to begin a serious and bipartisan discussion,” and frequent Ryan critic Michael Sean Winters said that the Congressman “deserves great praise for taking on the issue and for putting forward ideas and for inviting criticism and continued debate.“
Ryan’s proposal caps months of policy discussion on the right regarding poverty and upward mobility. Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, has emphasized that “the government social safety net for the truly indigent is one of the greatest achievements of our society” and called for a “conservative social justice agenda.” He’s hired Robert Doar, the former commissioner of New York City’s Human Resources Administration, to head poverty studies at AEI. Newly energized reform conservatives aim to bring policy seriousness to the GOP on this issue and others. And Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio have presented ideas of their own, with Senator Rubio most recently describing his approach at the Catholic University of America.
Ryan’s plan is the most detailed to date. Its goal is to “repair the safety net and help families get ahead.” Questions about its most controversial feature, the “opportunity grant” pilot project in select states, have been raised even by some Ryan supporters. At the same time, Ryan has explicitly welcomed such constructive criticism, noting that his proposal is merely meant to get a conversation started. Other features of the plan, like increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit and pursuing criminal justice and licensing reform, have been welcomed across partisan lines.
Putting aside the merits of the proposal, it seems clear that Ryan has developed it in good faith. It’s hard to view a detailed anti-poverty program as an effort to score political points. Of course, that begs the question of how much political traction the plan can get. Regardless of the answer, Ryan has used his heft as a former GOP vice-presidential candidate and House Budget leader to kick start a conversation about an issue central to Catholic social teaching.
That’s a positive development. In the past, Ryan has drawn serious criticism from those who argue that he’s advanced views inconsistent with Catholic principles regarding, for instance, government’s essential role in promoting the common good, the positive requirements of subsidiarity and its inextricable connection to solidarity, and the preferential option for the poor.
Ryan’s current proposal is a real step forward. Here subsidiarity does not play out as a Catholic word for federalism, but as an understanding that all levels of government have an important role to play in responding to poverty, as do local mediating institutions. Those groups can “focus on the unique needs of each family and [have an] intimate knowledge of the people they serve,” putting “welfare on a more human scale” that’s responsive to experience and place. The plan also has a welcome focus on the person; those living in poverty are not understood as abstractions, but as particular people rooted in varied circumstances. The community groups empowered by the plan can, as the Rev. Shirley Holloway notes, “build a relationship…when you come into facilities like mine, you are not a number, you are not a statistic, you are a person.”
The Ryan proposal sees those persons not as isolated individuals, but as persons embedded in social relationships with one another. It recognizes that efforts to strengthen social capital are essential to any effective anti-poverty effort, as is the encouragement of work. Finally, it imports effective market-based ideas like reliance on results-driven research, competition, and accountability – all valuable tools toward making policy more effective and thus helping more people in need.
Catholics and others have made thoughtful critiques of the Ryan proposal, and much remains to work out. These ideas need to be reconciled with the GOP budget, and real engagement on other issues affecting low-income Americans would be welcome as well. But with some 46 million people living in poverty, the burgeoning attention to this issue by Republicans generally, and by Congressman Ryan in particular, merits encouragement by Catholics of both parties. This is an opportunity for Catholics of the left and right to work together to promote the common good, to be faithful citizens, and Catholics first.
Kim Daniels is a senior advisor at Catholic Voices USA and the former spokesperson for the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.