Thursday, May 3, 2012

Missing the Point on Poverty

Another great post by Meghan Clark from over at Catholic Moral Theology, which has become my favorite Catholic blog.

She has a very good understanding of the economy and of Catholic Social Teaching and I continually find myself in overall agreement with what she writes.

Full post here.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.


  1. I was disappointed with the budget since it didn't make any cuts in defense. Lets start closing these bases! Also Ryan has a view that many americans do that if america goes bankrupt then we can't help anybody(I know not the view of this blog, but widely held).

    Also you wrote, "Economist Charles M.A. Clark’s Commonweal piece “Truth Deficit: Four Myths about Government Spending” (disclosure: he is my father). Did I miss something, or is this just a cut and paste mistake?

  2. On your second note: I was quoting Meghan Clark, whose father is Charles Clark, an economist at St. John's University who has written a lot on CST.

    On your first: I am okay with defense cuts, but I am a pacifist. And more importantly, the U.S. can't go bankrupt. They can never (operationally at least) default on their commitments. They can choose not to pay someone that they owe and to do so would be disastrous, but they can always make payments in their unit of account, the dollar. If they get carried away with this, inflation could be a problem, but until we are fully employed in both capital and labor, that is highly unlikely to be an issue. So we shouldn't worry about bankruptcy, we should worry about what we think the government should be doing (welfare, defense, healthcare, education, infrastructure, economy, whatever) and then make it happen. There is a right amount of deficit for a healthy economy. There isn't necessarily a right size government for a healthy economy, though this is debatable. We can have a smaller government if we as a nation feel it is better to have that, but we must also shrink the taxes then as well otherwise we will cause more economic turmoil.

    I hope to make this more clear in future posts.

    Thanks for the comment!