Missing the Point on Poverty
There has been a lot of discussion this week about the morality of the Ryan Budget. Since Paul Ryan’s statement on subsidiarity, the media and blogs have been full of posts either supporting or correcting Paul Ryan’s use of Catholic social teaching. (Lest anyone be unsure, I completely disagree with Ryan’s use of Catholic social teaching and examined the question of subsidiarity here last month). This week’s discussion heated up as the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development released 4 key statements/press releases pleading with Congress to “to draw a circle of protection around the programs that serve “the least among us.” when dealing with housing programs, SNAP/food stamps, agriculture and the Child Tax Credit.
The housing letter is available at: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/housing-homelessness/upload/Letter-to-House-Appropriations-on-FY-2013-2012-04-04.pdf
The SNAP/food stamps bill letter is available at: www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/hunger-food-nutrition/upload/Letter-to-House-Committee-on-Agriculture-2012-04-16.pdf
The agriculture spending letter is available at: www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/hunger-food-nutrition/upload/Joint-Letter-to-Senate-2012-04-16.pdf
The Child Tax Credit letter is available at: www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/poverty/domestic/upload/Letter-to-House-Ways-and-Means-on-CTC-2012-04-17.pdf
There is a beautiful coherence and symmetry to the four statements – they all have one clear message – protect the poor and vulnerable. While they acknowledge (as do we all) that we live in difficult and complex economic times, we cannot in good conscience balance the budget or protect the economy through sacrificing the poor and vulnerable within our communities. In the Letter on Snap, Bishop Blaire reiterates the three key moral guidelines for evaluating the morality of a budget:
1. Every budget decision should be assessed by whether it protects or threatens human life and dignity.
2. A central moral measure of any budget proposal is how it affects “the least of these” (Matthew 25). The needs of those who are hungry and homeless, without work or in poverty should come first.
3. Government and other institutions have a shared responsibility to promote the common good of all, especially ordinary workers and families who struggle to live in dignity in difficult economic times.
Now the Bishop’s letters have gotten quite the response. Speaker John Boehner acknowledged the Bishop’s moral authority but claimed they were being short sighted and did not get the “bigger picture.” Congressman Paul Ryan claimed“These are not all the Catholic bishops, and we just respectfully disagree.” (In response to Ryan’s assertion that these letters do not represent all the bishops, “USCCB spokesman Don Clemmer told The Hill that the letters do represent all Catholic bishops, as they were penned by members of the church that were elected to represent the bishops on policy matters at the national level. “Bishops who chair USCCB committees are elected by their fellow bishops to represent all of the U.S. bishops on key issues at the national level,” Clemmer said. “The letters on the budget were written by bishops serving in this capacity.” – something which Catholics all along the political spectrum must remember).
In response to Speaker Boehner and Congressman Ryan, I would respectfully state, I do not think you get the bigger picture. Boehner, Ryan and their colleagues seem to grossly and dangerously miss the point regarding poverty and vulnerability. Yes, 1 in 6 Americans are living below the poverty line and millions of Americans are struggling, jobless, homeless, hungry and suffering. This is the bigger picture. Catholic social teaching promotes a people-centered economy not the reverse. As Catholics, we simply cannot sacrifice and scapegoat the poor. Hiding behind the debt/deficit and welfare reform attempts to do just that – to take our eye off the bigger picture (47 million people in poverty, a continuing homelessness/foreclosure problem, and high unemployment).
How is this hiding?
1. Debt/Deficit: Their assumptions about the budget, deficit and national debt simply are highly contested by both well-respected economists and theologians. The evaluation of where we are, how we got here, how we move forward and what our economic plan should be is highly contested by economists. On the economic question – I once again recommend taking a look at Economist Charles M.A. Clark’s Commonweal piece “Truth Deficit: Four Myths about Government Spending” (disclosure: he is my father) or look at the many online writings by: L. Randall Wray, Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and others challenging the faulty economic ideology behind the Ryan budget and calls for austerity. (At some point, the economic ideology which lead to the 2008 financial crisis has to be rejected if we have any hope of rebuilding a sustainable community).
2. Welfare Reform: The big call for saving SNAP and other social protections through “reform like the welfare reform” presumes that welfare reform was a big success – this is highly contested. Was welfare reform a big success? Well that depends on what you’re definition of success is – is it enough that it “got people off of welfare?” From a the perspective of this moral theologian, getting people off of welfare is not sufficient. Are they out of poverty? Are they flourishing? These questions cannot be adequately answered because the periodic evaluation of welfare reform (called for in the law) has not taken place – as of 2010, it had not even begun. (The politics of this from 1996 up until the 2008 election is detailed by Thomas Massaro, SJ in “Unfinished Business”).
Are we willing to attempt to “save ourselves” by sacrificing the poor? This type of misdirection and scapegoating is not new and human societies are very good at this kind of self- delusion. But as Catholics, we are called to something very different. We are called to the bigger picture which is found in true solidarity with the poor and vulnerable. Last year, as we were having what seems like the same debates about government spending, I wrote “Would You Deny Jesus Food Stamps?” a post that like this one was far too long….but my main point bears repeating:
In her reflection on Matthew 16:15 “Who do you say that I am?” Mother Teresa offers a powerful answer, beginning with the standard theological statements from the creed (You are the Second person of the Blessed Trinity, etc) and concludes:
Jesus is the Hungry – to be fed.
Jesus is the Thirsty – to be satiated.
Jesus is the Homeless – to be taken in
Jesus is the Sick – to be healed.
Jesus is the lonely – to be loved.
Jesus is the Unwanted – to be wanted.
Jesus is not like the poor. Jesus is the poor. Jesus is not like the unemployed father who cannot find work and for whom food stamps are the only thing preventing his children from going to bed hungry. Christ is not like single mother working two low-paying part time jobs surviving only through access to housing and child care subsidies. Jesus Christ is that father. Jesus Christ is that mother.
That is the bigger picture. The plight of the poor, vulnerable, invisible in our society is the bigger picture. It is estimated that 3 months of homelessness sets a child back in school 1 full year – that is the bigger picture.