In his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis wrote: “Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programs, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality.”
Last month, the House Budget Committee, under the leadership of Chairman Paul Ryan, published a proposal that offers one example of what such “programs, mechanisms and processes” might look like. Titled “Expanding Opportunity in America,” Ryan’s proposed reforms would make federal anti-poverty programs more effective at helping those in poverty and, ultimately, helping them escape poverty.
The federal government currently spends about $800 billion dollars on 92 separate anti-poverty programs, yet the poverty rate today is higher than it’s been in decades. Rather than focusing on spending levels for these programs—a debate that promises partisan rancor ad infinitum—the Ryan proposal tries to tackle a different, more practical problem: The money we’re currently spending (a little over 5% of GDP)—and the way we’re spending it—isn’t making enough of a difference. Americans, especially those in poverty, deserve better. So how can we make those federal dollars do more?
Ryan’s proposal presupposes the necessity of federal anti-poverty programs, but also looks to go “beyond a simple welfare mentality.” This means that we ought to do more than just try to make poverty more tolerable; we should do what we can to help people escape poverty. You might say the proposals also take as a basic premise the principle of subsidiarity: the state should play a supporting role, but putting people on a path out of poverty is best accomplished in and through local communities and networks of solidarity, that is, by those who know most about the particular needs and challenges of the least among us. Here’s how the Ryan proposal puts it:
For too long, the federal government has tried to supplant, and not to support, the people fighting poverty on the front lines—families, neighborhoods, community groups. In the fight against poverty, the people ultimately are the vanguard, and government is the rearguard. Government protects the supply lines. But it is the people themselves who take to the front lines.
Ryan’s plan would take the money we already spend on anti-poverty programs, consolidate some of it, and grant it to the states (with certain restrictions), allowing the states to develop pilot programs tailored to address specific, local needs. These “Opportunity Grants” would not reduce federal aid, but would allow states—and the communities and associations that know the most about the particular challenges of their local situation—the flexibility to test different approaches to see what works best.
Combating poverty requires more than simply providing material assistance where and when it is needed. The ultimate goal is for people to escape poverty and be able to sustain themselves and their families. To this end, the Ryan proposal extends the Earned Income Tax Credit (widely acknowledge to be one of the most effective anti-poverty programs), bolsters education and job-training programs, reforms federal sentencing guidelines so that judges have more flexibility in dealing with non-violent offenders, and puts a check on the promulgation of federal regulations that have a disproportionate impact on those in poverty.
None of these proposals is a silver bullet. None of them can replace a healthy economy, more (and better) jobs, higher wages, etc. Ryan himself insists that the proposals are a first step, a conversation starter, not a last word. But if the proposals aren’t glamorous or definitive, they are refreshing—especially in this partisan climate—in that they offer reforms that might be both effective and politically viable. (Imagine that!) They’re being taken seriously by some folks not usually inclined to heap praise on Paul Ryan, and that’s important.
The proposals are also important because they signal a further shift among GOP lawmakers away from the disastrous emphasis on “makers and takers” that dominated too much of the 2012 presidential campaign and toward a more compelling (and more conservative) vision of society in which individual persons are always considered within a web of relationships and responsibilities—relationships that deserve government’s protection, and at times even direct assistance, but for which government is simply no substitute.
For what it’s worth, this isn’t the first time Paul Ryan has made these kinds of arguments. Here’s hoping the conversation about anti-poverty reform leads to real improvements. And here’s hoping more lawmakers learn the vital importance of supporting those subsidiary institutions of civil society from which solidarity springs.