I have considered Senator Rubio with some hope since he burst on the scene. Now, after reading his thoughts on the “War on Poverty,” at least some of what I hoped he could be has started to come to fruition. His speech didn’t just give me hope for him, though. If he is the real thing, he could lead the Republican Party away from their constant talk of protecting the rich from taxation and towards a defense of the working poor who’ve been abandoned by a Democratic Party focused on free contraception, gay rights, abortion on demand and the environment.
What’s more, his analysis and proposals for dealing with poverty in America seem to be a faithful presentation of Catholic Social Teaching. Whether he meant it or not, I do believe that they are more faithful than that which sadly passes for social justice in the Democratic Party in their war against poverty.
Rubio is spot on at the beginning when he speaks about the importance of the livable wage. This is exactly the language of the Church and its insistence on the right to a just wage, a living wage or a family wage. It is a wage which, as the Senator says, allows Americans “to live a happy and fulfilling life. To earn a livable wage in a good job. To have the time to spend with family and do the things they enjoy. To be able to retire with security. And to give their own kids a chance to do as well or better than themselves.” This language is very close to the language of the Church.
Rubio is exactly right again when he says that we are wrong to focus on the income gap. The principle in Catholic Social Teaching of the Universal Destination of Goods does not tell us that gaps in wealth are per se wrong. Rather, to quote the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church:
“The universal destination of goods means that all persons must have access to the goods God gives us so that all persons can reach their fulfillment physically, intellectually, and spiritually more fully and more easily.”
Poverty may exist, but the point is that the poor should have access to those goods which make it possible to improve on their lives. The language of the Church itself contains a sense of the movement of the poor from poverty to security. The poor must be able to “reach their fulfillment.” Rubio is on the mark, then, when he says that it is not income equality that is the problem in our nation. It is the “lack of mobility.” It is the fact that “70% of children born in poverty will never make it to the middle class.” That is the problem. And so he is correct that “we must close this gap in opportunity.”
He goes on to point out that the effort of the Democratic Party to raise the minimum wage is exactly the wrong one. He said, “Raising the minimum wage may poll well, but having a job that pays $10 an hour is not the American Dream.” I should like to address the problems with the minimum wage elsewhere, but for now the point Rubio makes is stark and sensible. Raising the minimum wage does not, indeed cannot, address this problem of mobility in our country. It is not only not a good answer to our problems; it is an obstacle to finding the solution to them.
Why? Rubio hits the nail on the head. Large, federal programs that push a “one-size-fits-all approach” fail to account for the variations in communities, the differences in effective approaches across the states. Ultimately they ignore the principle of subsidiarity. Yes, “subsidiarity”! $10.10 an hour means something far different in Omaha than it does in Manhattan. Pretending this is not the case doesn’t help the poor and it hurts businesses as well as the young who are already suffering the worst unemployment rates they’ve seen in decades.
And though he doesn’t use the word “subsidiarity,” Rubio’s suggestion is that we reform the way we approach poverty in America by moving towards a system that shows greater respect for local leaders.
The principle of subsidiarity insists that larger organizations help smaller, more local organizations function in whatever work they must. So Rubio argues that the federal government should provide states with a “revenue neutral Flex Fund.” This would allow the states to “design and fund creative initiatives that address the factors behind inequality of opportunity.” The local community, after all, is more aware of what the local community needs. Here’s how he put it:
“It’s wrong for Washington to tell Tallahassee what programs are right for the people of Florida – but it’s particularly wrong for it to say that what’s right for Tallahassee is the same thing that’s right for Topeka and Sacramento and Detroit and Manhattan and every other town, city and state in the country.”
This needed to be said. Indeed, it’s been said before, but it needs to be repeated again and again. Subsidiarity must be factored into our considerations of solidarity. Rubio strikes that balance as later he refers to the role of the federal government in subsidies for low wages and other solidarity-building initiatives. He seems to have a sense of the balance which is necessary, a balance lacking in the initiatives that come from the political left.
Here, in Rubio’s speech we see a fine example of how authentic Catholic Social Teaching can be implemented. More of this needs to happen, and those Catholic Congressmen who are listening ought to pay attention to this sort of thinking. Appeals to real reforms that could help the working class are what will win the hearts and minds and votes of the many Catholics who are tired of a Republican Party constantly defending lower taxes for the rich. These reforms may also invite a change in those Catholics who have long suspected that the Democratic Party’s “devotion” to the social teaching has been self serving and empty.
Rubio’s suggestions may not be possible with a Congress as dysfunctional as it is. But it is a vision for addressing poverty, really addressing it, instead of engaging in the tired ideas which are received by others.