The summer has brought struggles in Iraq, Israel/Gaza, and closer to home in Ferguson (MO) to the media, and Congress has gone into full-time fundraising. When they return, the budget will again hit the news media. As chair of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) will be front and center of the discussion. While fundamentalist Christians use their religion as the main reason for their votes, Ryan, a Catholic, opposes the values that Pope Francis espouses when addressing the nation’s priorities in spending.
His favorite spin on removing the safety net for the poor in the past was that “the preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenants of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life.” Two years ago, 60 theologians, priests, nuns, and social justice leaders protested the claim that his budget represented Catholic values. They and many other Catholics feel that Ryan has betrayed his religious positions of helping vulnerable people, just taxation, and using the government for the common good. As Father Thomas J. Reese explained, “Our problem with Representative Ryan is that he claims his budget is based on Catholic social teaching. This is nonsense.”
Failing to persuade people that giving to the rich and abandoning the poor is a basic tenet of the Catholic church, Ryan decided to drop the religious approach in his more recent plan, “Expanding Opportunity in America.” He proposes “block grants,” although he doesn’t call them this, to states to replace the federal safety net. In addition, the program would be far more structured, forcing aid recipients to meet with case managers and sign contracts for short- and long-term goal. Paying for this new administrative bureaucracy will take benefits away from those who need them.
States wouldn’t do a better job of helping the poor. Politicians know that the federal government is vital in solving problems as indicated by the demand for federal aid to disasters such as super storms or tornadoes or chemical plant explosions. Congress created federal safety net programs because states were unable to solve these social problems. If Ryan succeeded in moving money to the states, the most conservative and anti-Washington ones would get more federal funding than the others. Of the 20 states with the highest levels of food stamp costs, 16 voted for Mitt Romney in the last presidential election.
In fact, states have a history of funneling federal monies for specific purposes into their general coffers. For example, Texas Gov. Rick Perry used $17.4 billion of the stimulus bill he hated so much to solve his deficit problems. Minnesota and Wisconsin were among states using the same tactic.
According to Pope Francis, “Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society.” His proposal is to dismantle unjust economic and social systems, doing away with an unfettered capitalist market and any other system that uses people rather than serves them. He has prayed for “more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor.” Ryan doesn’t fit into this category.
As a PR move, Ryan toured schools, churches, and other groups to determine how they are trying to solve the problem of poverty. After this experience, he talked about stereotypic causes of poverty—drug abuse, teen parents, single mothers, absentee fathers, prison time, no higher education—in short, “a lack of productive habits.” Missing from his picture of poverty are college graduates unable to find work, longer-term unemployed without unemployment insurance, older people unable to get jobs because of their age, and people unable to support themselves and their children because of low minimum wages.
Ryan’s conclusion is still that people are poor because they made bad personal choices. He fails to understand that poverty in the United States today comes from a huge inequality in income. Ryan used social security benefits after his father died so that he could go to school; he should understand its importance.
As Bill Moyers pointed out, “Claiming you can solve poverty without money is like claiming you can solve drought without water.” Conservatives believe that the only way to have a strong national defense is to give vast amounts of money to defense contractors, but they think they can solve the problem of poverty by giving low-income people less funding. Low-income people spend most of the money on basic necessities like housing, food, fuel, health care and education; wealthy people take a large percentage of their money out of the country.
Ryan wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “The best anti-poverty program is economic growth.” Yet while the economy has grown 147 percent per capita since the 1970s, the average U.S. worker earns about exactly the same as 30 years ago when wages are adjusted for inflation. The 15-percent share of people in poverty is higher than in the early 1970s. Almost all the gains since that time went to the top: the richest 1 percent went from 9 percent of total income 40 years ago to over 20 percent now.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has joined Ryan in lying about poverty. He denies that raising the minimum wage or giving the poor more assistance would address poverty. Instead he wants “reforms that encourage and reward work.” That follows Ronald Reagan’s line that the best social program is a job, a theory that has contributed to the nation’s downfall. Jobs are important, both to economic well-being and self-esteem, but the number of working poor in the United States has steadily been growing. For almost 20 years, people on government assistance have been required to have jobs, meaning that more poor people have jobs. Approximately one-fourth of all American workers have jobs paying below what a full-time, full-year worker needs in order to live above the federally defined poverty line for a family of four.
A favorite mantra of conservatives is that poor people have no ambition. Yet many people work long hours at backbreaking jobs and still need a safety net. Poor people actually lack opportunity, beginning with good schools. The United States is one of three advanced countries that spend less on educating poor children and rich ones. Israel and Turkey are the only other two countries that have more teachers and less crowded classrooms in schools with more privileged students. The other countries have exactly the reverse.
Ryan’s budget would slash food stamp programs, leaving people hungry. It would cut scholarships, keeping poor youth out of higher education. It would only make life easier for the wealthy. It would reverse the Affordable Care Act, leaving people without any health care. It would eliminate low-income programs that work, including the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program that helps low-income pregnant women and children obtain fresh produce at farmers’ markets.
Ryan’s religion is the Republican party.