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A Christian Consensus on Poverty?

Presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have both focused on the middle class, but Christianity demands a preferential option for the poor. Christians of the Left and the Right should be able to find common ground on policies to help the poor. Here are five policies that could serve as the basis for such a common ground.

Two weeks ago I criticized the two presidential candidates for their nearly exclusive focus on what is good for the middle class and their lack of similar focus on poverty. I argued that although it is certainly true that a strong middle class can be beneficial to society as a whole, without policies aimed directly at addressing poverty, the poor will be the least likely to benefit from economic growth. Christians must be motivated by a preferential option for the poor, not for the middle class, and I concluded by suggesting the need for a bipartisan consensus among Christians in support of the poor. Here I would like to build on that suggestion by outlining a conceptual framework that can serve as a basis for that consensus and some policy recommendations as a starting point for discussion.

One problem with contemporary discussions of poverty is that they are so focused on income. As the economist Amartya Sen points out, income is only a means to an end. What really matters is human well-being. Sen’s colleague Martha Nussbaum defines human well-being in terms of ten capabilities: life; bodily health; bodily integrity; senses, imagination, and thought; emotions; practical reason; affiliation; other species; play; and control over one’s environment (see here for definitions of each capability). Sen defines poverty primarily as “capabilities deprivation” rather than lack of income. Of course adequate income is necessary to possess most of these capabilities, but the capabilities approach provides a more useful measure of poverty, for the following reasons:

  •  It provides a substantial measure of real poverty. The current measure of poverty in the United States is widely recognized as flawed, as it is based on the typical diet and the share of income devoted to food in the 1960s. Although alternative measures of poverty based on income have been proposed, a capabilities approach provides a clear focus on human well-being that is measurable and that can guide policy.
  • It helps reveal aspects of poverty that might be hidden by traditional poverty measures. For example, in his book Development as Freedom, Sen discusses how (at least in 1999) African-Americans in the United States have a lower life expectancy than people in China, Kerala (India), Sri Lanka, Jamaica, and Costa Rica, despite having much higher incomes. Lack of access to health care and violent neighborhoods create a poverty that is not measured by income statistics.
  • It helps explain how well-intentioned poverty programs can end up hurting the people they are intended to help by not recognizing the complexity of human well-being. A well-known example is how in the 1950s and 1960s, low-income but thriving neighborhoods were demolished and replaced by public housing projects. The intention was to provide affordable housing to the poor, but the unintended result was the destruction of the “social capital” of these neighborhoods and the “ghettoization” of the poor.

In Populorum Progressio, Pope Paul VI explains that human development must be measured by the establishment of “truly human conditions” consisting in material necessities, a harmonious social life, and the pursuit of the transcendent (#21). This line of thinking is very consistent with the capabilities approach. The Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes defines the common good as “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment” (#26), meaning that the state and private institutions must work together to ensure that these basic conditions are met. This should be the starting point for any Christian consensus on poverty.

We live, however, in an age of austerity. Meeting the basic needs of the poor costs money, and part of our political discussion today is how much spending on the poor is appropriate and how this spending is balanced with other budget priorities. If our starting point is ensuring that the real human needs of the poor are met, then one implication of this is that programs that assist the poor should not be cut simply to meet budget targets. For example, Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan for 2013 required the House Agriculture Committee to make $33.2 billion in cuts over ten years to help cut the deficit, and the committee proposed cutting this sum from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). On the other hand, the principle annunciated by Catholic Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton that “’a circle of protection’ be drawn around essential programs that serve poor and vulnerable people” also seems misguided, since it seems to shut the door to reforms that could make government assistance more cost effective. The circle of protection should be drawn around the poor, not government programs.

Drawing on these principles, I propose the following five policies as the basis for a Christian bipartisan consensus on poverty. Poverty is complex, and barriers encountered by the poor in the areas of income and employment, housing, education, and health care mutually reinforce one another. This is not intended as a comprehensive poverty policy, but rather a set of policies that can potentially serve as a common ground. Despite their importance for poverty reduction, I intentionally avoid policies on education and health care because of the lack of consensus in these areas.

1. For years, conservatives have pointed to the breakdown of the family as a major contributor to poverty, especially childhood poverty. Drawing on data from the US Census, the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector points out that while only 6.8% of married households with children are in poverty, 37.1% of households headed by single mothers are. Similarly, while 73.4% of non-poor families with children include married couples, 70.8% of poor families do not include married couples. Therefore one powerful tool in combating poverty is to strengthen marriage. Rector estimates that the poverty rate among current single mothers would be reduced by two-thirds if they married the biological fathers of their children. Consistent with the capabilities approach, marriage is part of human well-being even apart from its effect on income; the absence of a father has negative effects on emotional health, behavioral problems, and educational performance even after controlling for household income. Obviously people cannot be forced to marry, but the government can create programs that increase the incentives to do so. In 2005 President George W. Bush created the Healthy Marriages Initiative, which provides marriage education courses. This program could be expanded and supplemented by public education campaigns in low-income communities. Although some raise the objection that poverty creates obstacles to marriage, it is also clear that the lack of marriage contributes to poverty and that pro-marriage policies can be part of a comprehensive anti-poverty program.

2. Another policy to assist poor families that has supporters on both the left and right is to increase the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for married couples with children and the child tax credit. Both provide assistance to low-income families with children, although he EITC is preferable because it is focused on married couples. Rector also argues that increases to the EITC would help offset the disincentives to marriage built into the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and other means-tested programs (if an unmarried couple that receives benefits marries and combines their incomes, they could become ineligible for those benefits).

3. There should also be a broad consensus around means-tested forms of assistance such as SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. There has been a lot of press lately about the fact that total annual federal and state spending on social assistance has for the first time topped $1 trillion; at the federal level it now accounts for one fifth of total spending. Spending on SNAP has more than quadrupled since 2000, increasing from $19.8 billion to $84.6 billion in 2011. A large part of this increase is attributable to the growing number of people in need as a result of the economic downturn beginning in 2008. Conservatives also accuse the Obama administration of loosening the eligibility requirements for SNAP, increasing its enrollment and costs, and have recommended rolling back these changes. This is misleading, however, because according to the Congressional Budget Office, the eligibility requirements for SNAP have not changed since 2000; what has changed is that both the Bush and Obama administrations have made greater efforts to make the program accessible to people already eligible for its benefits. Therefore to reverse these policies would not mean taking people not really in need off the rolls, but rather people in need who, for whatever reason, in the past were not able to access their benefits. Conservatives also point out that President Bill Clinton’s reform to the program in 2000 provided “broad-based categorical eligibility,” providing streamlined access to SNAP to people enrolled in other programs such as TANF. The problem is that this provided eligibility to people whose incomes or assets exceeded the limits established for SNAP. Again according to the CBO, however, this group accounts for less than five percent of SNAP recipients, and because of their relatively higher incomes, they receive fewer benefits (only two percent of the total budget). The program should be reformed to exclude this group if possible, but not in a way that makes access more difficult for others who meet the income and asset requirements.

4. Perhaps controversially, since SNAP spending has drastically increased, this could be partially balanced by creating work requirements similar to those introduced with welfare reform in 1996. Paul Ryan has proposed this reform in his budget plan. SNAP is an open-ended entitlement program, meaning there is no time limit or work-requirement for able-bodied recipients. According to the CBO, 70% of households receiving SNAP benefits have no earned income. Although part of this could be attributable to households headed by the elderly or disabled, only 16% of recipient households include (let alone are headed by) elderly people and only 20% include disabled people. Therefore a majority of that 70% must include at least one able-bodied adult without income. Therefore significant cuts could be made to the program by encouraging recipients to work or search for work, while maintaining benefits for those truly in need. Progressives may recoil from this proposal, but the capabilities approach suggests that work itself is an important part of human fulfillment; Christian theology suggests that it is central to our human vocation.

5. One important reason why progressives opposed the work requirements in welfare reform was because they created substantial new transportation and child care burdens for mothers entering the work force. Therefore a consensus-based poverty policy should also include increased funding for child care. The Center for American Progress proposes that the Child Care and Development Block Grant be increased by fifty percent, at a cost of $2.6 billion, to help meet this need.

I invite comments, critiques, and challenges to what I have laid out here. Certainly one person’s opinions alone cannot be considered a consensus; I have only outlined policies that I think are capable of generating considerable agreement among Christians. My own biases might have crept into my recommendations, so I welcome dialogue that helps develop a stronger Christian consensus on poverty.

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