CNN is not the customary locale-of-choice for a catechesis on Catholic social doctrine. But that’s what Paul Ryan, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, offered viewers of a CNN national town hall meeting on the evening of August 21.
Challenged with a semi-“Gotcha!” question by Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Erica Jordan, who not-so-subtly suggested that Ryan’s approach to healthcare reform, tax reform, and welfare reform was in conflict with the Church’s social teaching, the very Catholic Speaker replied that he completely agreed with Sister Erica that God is “always on the side of the poor and dispossessed”; the real question was, how do public officials, who are not God, create public policies that empower the poor and dispossessed to be not-poor and not-dispossessed?
Congressman Ryan then laid out an approach to alleviating poverty and empowering the poor that seemed to me entirely congruent with the core Catholic social ethical principles of subsidiarity and solidarity. Solidarity with the poor is a moral imperative, Ryan agreed, but solidarity should not be measured by inputs—How many federal dollars go into anti-poverty programs?—but by outcomes: Are poor people who can live independent and fruitful lives being helped by our welfare dollars to develop the skills and habits that will enable them to be self-reliant, constructive citizens? The moral obligation of solidarity is not met by programs that perpetuate welfare dependency.
Speaker Ryan is a longstanding advocate of decentralizing and (as he puts it) “customizing” social welfare programs. That means abandoning one-size-fits-all attempts to address poverty and looking to the states, where a lot of the creativity in American government resides these days, for approaches that actually empower the poor, because they treat poor people as men and women with potential to be unleashed, not simply as clients to be maintained. Proposals to decentralize social welfare programs and give the states the funds necessary to conduct all sorts of customized efforts to empower the poor—crafted so that each “fits” the vast array of distinct circumstances we find in impoverished America—strike me as a sensible application of the social doctrine’s principle of subsidiarity. That principle, first articulated by Pope Pius XI in 1931, teaches us to leave decision-making at the lowest possible level in society, closest to those most directly affected by the policy in question. Paul Ryan thinks Washington doesn’t have to decide everything; Pius XI would have agreed.
The fact that poverty remains a serious problem in the United States after the federal government has spent $22 trillion dollars on social welfare programs over the past fifty years should have taught us all something about the complex problems of empowering the poor. No one with any sense or experience imagines that he or she has the silver-bullet answer to poverty in all its social, cultural, economic, and political dimensions; I know my friend Speaker Ryan doesn’t think he does.
But unlike those who insist on measuring an official’s or a party’s commitment to the poor by inputs rather than outcomes (an approach that tends to instrumentalize the poor and render social welfare policy a cash transaction rather than a human encounter), Paul Ryan and reform conservatives like him are willing to face the fact that there is no direct correlation between magnitude-of-dollar-inputs and success-of-human-outcomes when it comes to anti-poverty programs. Inner-city Catholic schools (the Church in America’s most effective social welfare program) demonstrate that time and again: They spend less than the government schools, and their students learn much more—and not just in quantifiable, standardized-testing terms.
America needs many serious conversations in this age of the demagogic tweet and the rabid talk-radio sound-bite. One of them is about the scandal of poverty amidst vast wealth and the empowerment of the poor. That conversation is not advanced when, as happened after the CNN broadcast, smug partisans attack a serious Catholic public official by suggesting that he’s deficient in both his moral commitment to the poor and his understanding of Catholic social doctrine. Paul Ryan is no more the reincarnation of Simon Legree than Sister Erica Jordan and her fellow Sinsinawa Dominicans are the reincarnation of Ingrid Bergman/Sister Mary Benedict in The Bells of St. Mary’s. Keeping that in mind would help foster the thoughtful debate that the Speaker, and the country, would welcome.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.
Category Archives: Poverty
The opinion piece by Ben Carson is worth reading.
HUD is matching public housing residents with local job opportunities
Government should be a means of empowerment, not dependency, as well as a safety net. As President Trump discusses building America’s workforce, public housing has a role in that discussion. Those who receive housing assistance must have a path toward jobs, wealth creation and economic improvement. We must remove attitudes, regulations, policies and programs that reinforce dependence.
Read the rest @
Climate activists want to make the vast majority of fossil fuel use illegal. To justify this poverty-inducing plan, they repeat the lie that 97% of climate scientists agree with them.
TRUE: Climate scientists DO agree that there has been a global warming trend over the past 150 years. Some of them even concede that human beings have contributed to it.
HOWEVER, the warming trend has been tiny (0.8 degrees C), it started before the rise of man-made CO2, and it has abated in recent years even as CO2 levels have continued to rise.
LIE: The “97% of climate scientists believe we should restrict fossil fuels” lie was invented by a guy who wants to limit fossil fuel use. He did it by cherry picking a bunch of climate papers and falsely reporting that 97% of them agreed with him.
According to the article linked below, far from going full on Al Gore about fossil fuel use, only a relative handful of the cherry picked papers even endorse the view that human emissions of greenhouse gases are more than 50% responsible for the small amount of warming we’ve seen over the past 150 years.
The author quotes one of the scientists whose papers were included in the bogus survey. He reported that only 10 of his 122 eligible papers had been included, nine of which were rated incorrectly as to what he really said.
“The majority of rhetoric going around says that if you’re white, you have an inherent advantage in life. I would argue that, at least for the members of these small impoverished communities, their whiteness only harms them as it keeps their immense struggles out of the public eye.
“Rural Americans suffer from a poverty rate that is 3 points higher than the poverty rate found in urban America. In Southern regions, like Appalachia, the poverty rate jumps to 8 points higher than those found in cities. One fifth of the children living in poverty live rural areas. The children in this ‘forgotten fifth’ are more likely to live in extreme poverty and live in poverty longer than their urban counterparts. 57% of these children are white.”
The rest of this viral blog post is worth your time!
If you took all 7.3 billion people on the planet and lined them up according to material wealth, you would find the following representative of the global middle class:
- A family of four living in two rooms totaling about 200 square feet.
- Plumbing (a sink, toilet, and bathing room) is out back and shared with the family next door.
- They eat enough, although not extravagantly, and can afford some medical care, if they are frugal.
- They probably have a few luxuries like a TV, a fridge, a gas cook top, and/or cell phones.
- They need to work very hard to maintain what they have; if they fall behind they don’t have a big cushion.
Two to three billion people on the planet would consider any of the above to be a magnificent improvement over their current circumstances.
Back in the early 80s, my brother taught at Beijing University for a year. The government quartered him, his wife, and their 5-year-old in an apartment building for foreigners. Their apartment was similar to the one I had in college, with a living/dining area, plus one small bedroom, a small kitchen, and a bathroom.
One time and one time only*, a man my brother became close to at work came over for a visit. When he entered their apartment, his mouth dropped open and he stammered, “This is like where the Party leaders live!”
He and his wife and their one permitted child* were assigned a single room in which to live. They shared a bathroom, sink, and small stove with the other families on their floor. This man was a professor at the university.
My brother was a professor here at home. He and his wife owned their home, which had 3 bedrooms, 2-1/2 baths, a large living room, a separate dining room, a spacious eat-in kitchen, a 2-car garage, and about 1/3 acre of yard and garden all around.
*He asked not to be invited again, because fraternizing with a foreigner would put him and his loved ones at risk with the government.
**One of the people living on the floor was responsible for keeping track of the women’s menstrual cycles and reporting on any mother who was late. The government then sent someone to take her down to a clinic for an abortion.
- Personal stories told to me by my brother.