Just weeks after facing sharp criticism for using the poor as a photo opportunity during a rushed visit to a soup kitchen in Ohio, Rep. Ryan claimed in his speech that the Republican presidential ticket offers better hope for low-income Americans.
Let’s set aside the lofty rhetoric and consider the facts. Rep. Ryan’s budget proposal slashes food stamps, makes it harder for our elderly to access quality health care and erodes Medicaid. Sixty percent of the budget cuts in Ryan's plan fall on programs that serve people in need, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The congressman’s ideological crusade against food stamps is stunning. Nutrition programs reduced the poverty rate by nearly 8 percent in 2009, and kept 3.9 million people out of poverty last year. These are not people gaming the system, but struggling Americans doing their best to make ends meet at a time when the minimum wage is not enough to lift workers out of poverty. It’s no wonder that a diverse range of faith leaders, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have said Ryan’s budget plans fail a basic moral test.
Rep. Ryan talks a lot about a culture of dependency and divides Americans between “makers and takers.” It seems that he has spent little time walking in the shoes of those he criticizes. If he did, he would understand that poor people in our country work very hard. During my travels on the “Nuns on the Bus” tour, I was blessed to meet people like Billy and his wife in Milwaukee. His low-wage job provides just enough money to pay the rent, but sometimes it’s not enough to feed his two children. His family uses food stamps and St. Benedict the Moor’s dining room. Congressman Ryan would slash Billy’s use of food stamps and put more of the burden on churches and other charities that are already strained to the breaking point.
Faith leaders and social service providers know they can’t do it alone. Government provides significant funding to faith-based social service agencies that would be devastated by budget cuts that Rep. Ryan is pushing. In fact, the anti-poverty organization Bread for the World has calculated that each church in the country would have to spend $50,000 a year for the next ten years to replace Rep. Ryan’s $133 billion in cuts to food nutrition programs. Ryan's agenda amounts to forcing religious service providers to shoulder much more work with less resources.
As the wealthiest Americans watch their incomes soar, working Americans are getting a raw deal. It doesn’t have to be this way. In the decades following World War II, Republican and Democratic presidents used government wisely to invest in the common good. Our nation benefited from a sustained period of shared prosperity. But today hardworking families toiling in minimum wage jobs live in poverty. Republicans’ consistent efforts to block increases in the minimum wage are only matched in enthusiasm by their efforts to give the rich more tax breaks.
It gets worse. Romney and Ryan would also repeal an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which Ronald Reagan once called the “the best anti-poverty” measure to come out of Congress. Congressman Ryan touts welfare reform as a model for his vision, but studies show that while caseload numbers have dropped, people are not moving out of poverty. Affordable housing is still limited. Educational and job training funding is inadequate. Many states are funneling dollars meant for struggling families into other needs. This is not a path forward.
I commend Paul Ryan for talking about poverty, but his policy proposals will hurt the working poor, shrink the middle class and undermine the vital work of faith-based charities that often rely on government funds to meet the needs of our most vulnerable neighbors. Catholics and other values voters are tired of politicians using the poor as props in a photo op. It’s time for Republicans and Democrats to put ideology aside and unite behind an effective agenda that serves the common good.
Campbell is a Catholic Sister of Social Service and Executive Director of NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby in Washington.