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What Paul Ryan doesn’t get about poverty and government

A few days ago, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal as he sought to undo damage he caused by labeling people in our nation “makers and takers.”

While he finally got that this was “insensitive” and “ineffective,” he has not moved further in this thought. He has basically missed the fact that the reason we have so many struggling families in our nation is that there are extremely low wages and not enough jobs. In The Wall Street Journal, which caters to the 1 percent, he does nothing to call on business to do its part in addressing poverty in our nation.

{mosads}Ryan is correct that government cannot do it all. But the reason many antipoverty programs have grown is that wages have been stagnant. It is wrong when fulltime workers in the richest nation on earth are still living in poverty because wages are so low. It is wrong when people in our nation don’t have access to healthcare.

Ryan’s glib analysis that he is returning to the ideas of our founders completely misses the mark. In fact, our founders knew that “We the People” are all about working together to make our “more perfect union.” Everyone has a part. Business has a responsibility to support its workers, pay just wages that allow workers to support their families, and provide the benefits needed to have a healthy workforce.

But Pope Francis is correct when he says that the market cannot, in fact, “do it all.” He calls on government to fulfill its appropriate roles of balancing excesses of the market and of ensuring that those lost in the cracks of a free market can live in dignity. It takes us all working together to responsibly meet our obligations to each other.

Ryan, in contrast, sees the federal government as “coercive.” He proposes consolidating many federal antipoverty programs under state block grants, favoring local options even when they are underfunded or when they limit the number of people they serve. He also refuses to support raising the minimum wage even though that is one guaranteed way to help lift more people out of poverty. He is wrong on both counts.

I urge him to step away from his idealizing of business and individualism. There are many people in our country who are working fulltime and living in poverty. Where is his challenge to business to step up and do its part? Where is his realization that faith calls us to responsibly care for those at the margins of our society? Where is his realization that some people have been ground up in our economy and need our care?

I also urge him to step back into the lives and stories of real people and away from his platitudes about individualism. The need in our society is for community so that we stand together in challenging times, and so that everyone contributes and everyone benefits. Readers of The Wall Street Journal have benefited greatly from our economy. Now they need to be challenged to pay just salaries and join the community struggling to make a more perfect union.

Campbell is the executive director of NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, and author of A Nun on the Bus: How All of Us Can Create Hope, Change, and Community.

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