Rep. Paul Ryan has responded to Pope Francis’ calls to serve the poor, writing that he “could not agree more” with the pope on the nature of poverty and suggesting that his new plan to overhaul the U.S. safety net fits into Francis’ vision.
“[P]overty isn’t just a form of deprivation; it’s also a form of isolation. People always need to eat, and often they need something more, like a teacher or a job. In other words, they need other people,” Ryan said in an article published on the website of the Catholic magazine America Friday.
The editors of America had asked Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican and the chairman of the House Budget Committee, to respond to Pope Francis’ “repeated calls to empower the poor,” along with Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., who is also Catholic.
In his response, the conservative lawmaker and former vice presidential candidate cast his proposed reforms to the U.S. safety net as reflecting the spirit of Pope Francis, who said shortly after his election to the papacy in 2013 that "I would like a church that is poor and for the poor" and has made a point of condemning inequality.
Ryan said an overhaul of the U.S. safety net is needed to better integrate poor Americans into society, arguing that technology and the global economy have changed too fast for the bureaucracy to keep up. Ryan, who Democrats accuse of trying to shred the safety net, had introduced a discussion draft for a sweeping reform of U.S. antipoverty policy in July after spending two years visiting communities afflicted by poverty.
“Washington is in many ways deepening the divide” between the poor and others, Ryan wrote, adding that the government “is not helping people get back into the workforce; in fact, it is effectively encouraging them to stay out” with overlapping antipoverty programs that reduce benefits as recipients earn more, thereby creating an implicit tax on work.
“This is a crucial flaw in the safety net — one that demands correction,” Ryan wrote, quoting Francis as saying that “There is no worse dispossession … than not being able to earn one’s own bread, than being denied the dignity of work.”
Ryan’s plan calls for a pilot program that would consolidate federal antipoverty programs into one funding grant for states. State and local governments would be able to use those funds in experimenting with ways to reduce poverty, but would be mandated to impose work requirements and would face third-party progress reviews.
Those experiments would not necessarily include case management for recipients of government benefits, Ryan clarified. His plan was criticized when it was announced as paternalistic by some left-of-center analysts for including case management.
In his companion article, Kennedy, the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy and a first-term congressman, called for “realigning public policy with the fundamental American idea that what you start with does not determine where you end up.” Kennedy recommended stricter regulation of consumer finance, investing in childhood education and raising the minimum wage, along with expanded worker-protection laws.