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Rep. Ryan’s New Poverty Plan Is Not the Answer to the Pope’s Prayers

Rep. Paul Ryan listens during a hearing

SOURCE: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) listens on Capitol Hill in Washington.

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House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) recently released his latest plan to combat poverty in the United States. Somewhat surprisingly, it makes no mention of his Catholic faith. In 2012, Rep. Ryan justified his budget’s safety net cuts by citing his faith: “the preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenants of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life.” Some fellow Catholics met these words with fierce criticism; they felt the budget betrayed the Catholic principles of solidarity with vulnerable populations, just taxation, and a commitment to use government for the common good.

NETWORK’s Nuns on the Bus visited faith-based charities across the country that would be hurt by the enactment of Rep. Ryan’s 2012 budget cuts. Sixty prominent theologians, priests, nuns, and social justice leaders protested the claim that his budget represented Catholic values. And Father Thomas J. Reese explained, “Our problem with Representative Ryan is that he claims his budget is based on Catholic social teaching. This is nonsense.”

Perhaps these are some of the reasons faith is absent from Rep. Ryan’s most recent plan to reduce our nation’s poverty, “Expanding Opportunity in America.” According to this plan, our nation’s poverty problem can be better addressed by collapsing as many as 11 federal programs—including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, housing vouchers, and the Child Care and Development Fund—into a single “Opportunity Grant” that would go directly to states. The Ryan plan claims to promote accountability by forcing aid recipients to jump through a series of paternalistic hoops, including meeting with case managers and signing contracts to micromanage short- and long-term goals. Recipients are threatened with benefit cuts if they fail to meet these goals.

If Rep. Ryan truly wanted to help people living in poverty, however, he would not shy away from publically acknowledging the influence of his faith on his plan. In fact, two developments since the release of his 2012 budget beg for him to draw a connection between his Catholic faith and his poverty solutions. The first is the election of Pope Francis, which has revived enthusiasm for the Catholic Church and made its teachings on poverty more visible and urgent than they have been in a long time. The second is a personal tour Rep. Ryan embarked on in order to better understand poverty and people living in poverty.

A papal call to address poverty

Since his 2013 election, Pope Francis has used his papal platform to highlight the moral urgency of addressing poverty on individual and structural levels. In his November 2013 papal exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium—“Joy of the Gospel”—he wrote, “Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society.”

While Pope Francis recognized limits to what welfare programs can achieve, he suggested that those limits should drive the dismantling of unjust economic and social systems, rather than cause programs to be cut:

Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses. As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.

Unlike Rep. Ryan, the pope has offered clear criticism of an unchecked free market and any system that uses people rather than serves them. Indeed, he unabashedly prays for encounters with people living in poverty to transform politicians: “I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor!” Given these exhortations, one would have hoped that Rep. Ryan’s tour would have been transformative and that his poverty plan would have reflected new insights.

A tour to understand poverty

Beginning in 2012 and for more than a year, Rep. Ryan visited local schools, churches, and other organizations to learn about how they were tackling the challenges of poverty. Unfortunately, despite a year of meeting people living in poverty, Rep. Ryan still does not seem to understand structural poverty—why it occurs or how to solve it. Nor does he seem to comprehend the complexity and diversity of the people who live in poverty.

Look at the hypothetical poor people the Ryan plan introduces, Andrea and Steven. They are a veritable bonanza of stereotypes of poverty in America: mobile homes, drug abuse, teen parents, single mothers, absentee fathers, jail time, no college, and a “lack of productive habits.” Certainly, some people living in poverty do experience these things. But such challenges are not the whole person, let alone representative of the myriad reasons people are poor. Andrea and Steven seem to show that Rep. Ryan was not transformed by his tour, despite months of encountering poverty-related problems that cannot be reduced to biased preconceptions.

Where in his picture are the college graduates unable to find work? Or the older Americans without children? Where are the long-term unemployed whose unemployment insurance ran out months ago, and the married couples with children struggling to make ends meet with too-low wages? Rep. Ryan heard from such a person at his War on Poverty hearing last month: Tianna Gaines-Turner described how she and her husband both work but struggle to provide for their three children. Rep. Ryan’s plan does not acknowledge the structural challenges such families face—a dearth of affordable housing, a lack of quality education and easy access to healthy food, and more. These challenges prevent people from climbing out of poverty.

To be fair, Rep. Ryan’s plan does propose prison sentencing reform and an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. But this only highlights other failed connections. Rep. Ryan spent more than a year meeting with people who live in poverty, and he seems to have only affirmed what he already believed: that their poverty is a result of personal choices rather than negative economic forces working against them.

“Expanding Opportunity in America” is hardly the answer to Pope Francis’s prayers. While Rep. Ryan’s faith is of course a personal value, one might ask him to reflect on his poverty tour and his anti-poverty plan with these words from Jesus, another moral voice popular among billions of Christians: “Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear?”

Claire Markham is the Outreach Manager for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.

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