By Matt Hadro
After U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan announced a task force on poverty this, Catholic leaders and economists weighed in, saying that it was a good starting point, but that more needed to be done.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami voiced hope that the proposal would be a conversation-starter on poverty, saying it “ought to be a catalyst for strong bi-partisan dialogue about our brothers and sisters in need and our obligations to give them priority in our policymaking.”
Speaker Ryan’s 35-page plan, A Better Way: Our vision for a confidant America, proposes changes to the welfare system, more cooperation between faith and community-based initiatives and the federal government, and a more results-based critique of federal anti-poverty programs.
“No amount of government intervention can replace the great drivers of American life: our families, friends, neighbors, churches, and charities,” the introduction states. “And Americans do not need more one-size-fits-all, top-down government programs that limit their ability to get ahead. Instead, they need opportunities to help them escape poverty and earn success.”
Among the plans proposals are work requirements for welfare recipients, letting workers avoid the welfare “cliff” by keeping some benefits as they accept wage increases, giving states and local governments more freedom to tailor welfare benefits and incentives to the needs of specific communities, promoting the use of data and information technology to determine the effectiveness of anti-poverty programs, and working with community programs for at-risk youth, to prevent incarceration.
“All too often, our current system of welfare programs and education programs are too complex, or don’t provide the assistance that individuals need in their unique circumstances,” the plan stated. “This is the beginning of a conversation.”
Ryan, who ran for U.S. vice president in 2012, has publically described his budget principles as being based on the Catholic pillars of solidarity and subsidiarity.
Prominent Catholics voiced gratitude to the House Speaker for raising the issue and starting a dialogue on the matter, although they added that the conversation is only beginning.
“It is time for a major national discussion on the moral challenge of overcoming poverty in the richest nation on earth,” John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, told CNA. “I think Speaker Ryan’s proposal is a contribution to that, and I hope it will encourage others to offer their own plans and priorities.”
Carr was glad that the plan avoided touching “block grants, Medicaid, and food stamps,” noting that to do so “posed major practical and political problems” and did “not help the poor, in my view.”
Archbishop Wenski agreed. “Commendably, the plan does not seek to be a blunt instrument with regard to the social safety net,” he stated.
However, John Médaille, an adjunct professor of theology at the University of Dallas, said many of Ryan’s proposals “turn out to be aspirational at best, and contradictory at worst.”
The document “concentrates on symptoms, not causes” of poverty, he argued. “Poverty is the result of not having a job” or of “not having a job with a sufficient wage,” he said, but Ryan’s plan has “no wage-support programs” like a minimum wage hike, and has “no jobs program” to create jobs and bring people out of poverty.
Work requirements for welfare can only be a part of policies fighting poverty, Archbishop Wenski said. Lawmakers should look at other possible causes of poverty and symptoms “like access to nutritious food for people of all ages,” he said.
“While work is crucial for the flourishing of those who are able-bodied – and here St. John Paul II reminded us that work constitutes a foundation for the formation of family life – we need to account for the current state of our job training and the availability of actual, good paying jobs,” the archbishop stated.
And according to a study cited in the poverty report – a 2012 Census Bureau report on Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States – “the poverty programs actually do ease poverty” in that “people who didn’t have them would be starving,” Médaille noted.
Many people who are poor and receiving welfare benefits are actually “working very hard,” he said; in many families both parents are working and having to pay high daycare costs which can be second only to rent in monthly budget expenses.
The “effect of wage stagnation on family life” has had a very deleterious effect on families’ livelihoods, Médaille continued. Young white men earn “about the same” as in the 1970s, he noted, and “household income” has stayed about the same for almost 20 years. It’s definitely “part of the cause” of poverty, he said, but it receives “not even honorable mention in this document.”
One area Médaille agreed with the plan on was support for the Earned-Income Tax Credit. It should be “expanded radically” or even replaced with a guaranteed income, he said, noting that experiments in Canada and India show that people with a guaranteed income are “more likely to take a risk” and “become entrepreneurs.”