Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) meets with the Congressional Black Caucus on Wednesday a month after he drew widespread criticism for blaming urban poverty on what he called a "tailspin of culture" that fails to teach people the value of work. I share the congressman's Catholic faith and appreciate his sincere desire to confront the scandal of poverty in our wealthy nation. But callous rhetoric and reckless budget proposals won't get the job done.
Privileged politicians have a long history of lecturing people in poverty. Ronald Reagan seized on ugly racial stereotypes and class biases when he fueled the myth of the "welfare queen" riding high on the government dole. Ryan, in a similar spirit, has warned that we can't "turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency." These views reflect ideology and lazy assumptions more than facts.
Most people who are poor do work and toil long hours in jobs that fail to pay living wages. They clean our hotel rooms with aching backs, pick produce in blazing heat, and can't afford to take a day off when illness strikes. When the cruel choice between paying the rent or putting food on the table for the kids becomes overwhelming, they often find support from generous neighbors in churches and community groups. These essential private charities are already strained to the breaking point. Government can't be the only solution. But when politicians like Ryan oppose modest efforts to raise a federal minimum wage that keeps families trapped in poverty and rising inequality undermines the American dream, charity alone is not enough to fill the gap created by an economy now rigged to benefit the wealthiest few.
This is what makes Ryan's anti-government crusade so troubling. The House budget chairman's most recent proposals double down on the same trickle-down economics by rewarding the rich and slashing safety nets that have proven to be effective lifelines for millions of struggling families. The Ryan budget cuts basic food assistance (SNAP) by $137 billion even as it lowers the individual tax rate and the corporate income tax rate for the wealthy. Eight million Americans who have enrolled in new health care exchanges set up by the Affordable Care Act would lose coverage. At least 40 million low- and moderate-income people -- 1 in 8 Americans -- would become uninsured by 2024, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. His $125 billion cut to Pell Grants, which help low-income students go to college, kicks down ladders of opportunity for the next generation.
These proposals are not only morally wrong. They defy common sense. Social Security, food stamps, housing subsidies and other safety net programs that Ryan has targeted for steep cuts over the last several years keep millions of Americans out of poverty. SNAP, for example, is widely regarded as the nation's most effective anti-hunger program. It kept more than 4 million people out of poverty in 2011, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and reduced the number of children living in extreme poverty that year by half.
At the Conservative Political Action Committee meeting last month, Ryan mocked those who defend effective safety-net programs like SNAP as offering "a full stomach and an empty soul." This would be news to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals and leaders of more than 60 religious denominations who are working together to defend the very programs Ryan seems so eager to dismantle.
Pope Francis, who calls inequality "the root of social evil," has put poverty back at the top of the international agenda in ways that should challenge politicians on the left and right. Conservatives focus narrowly on family breakdown as perpetuating the cycle of poverty but frequently ignore unjust social structures such as under-resourced public schools, inadequate access to health care and jobs that fail to pay living wages. Liberals point to structural injustice but often don't pay enough attention to family, culture and the bonds of civil society. We need to reclaim a lost consensus that community and culture matters but also affirm that our government has a basic responsibility not to leave the poor, the elderly and the unemployed to the whims of the marketplace.
It's time to stop playing politics with poverty. Let's get serious about building a moral economy that works for all Americans.
[John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington. He is a former assistant director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Follow him on Twitter: @gehringdc.]
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