Perhaps no American politician has spurred as much discussion of the intersection of Catholic social teaching (CST) and politics in recent years as Paul Ryan, the U.S. Representative from Wisconsin. This discussion peaked during Ryan’s unsuccessful bid for the vice presidency in 2012, but has centered on his prominent role as the chair of the House Budget Committee, where Ryan has proposed a number of plans to cut government spending, including anti-poverty programs. Ryan himself has linked his policies to CST, most prominently during a speech at Georgetown University in April, 2012, whereas critics have accused him of distorting CST in pursuit of a conservative agenda (for example, see here, here, and here).
This past Thursday, Ryan released a “discussion draft,” Expanding Opportunity in America, outlining a vision of how U.S. government policy could be reformed to better combat poverty. The release of this document is a significant moment in the ongoing discussion of Ryan’s policies and CST because it is the first time he has presented a detailed plan on combatting poverty. My task for this post is to analyze Expanding Opportunity in America in light of CST; by temperament not very wonk-ish, I will not go into extensive detail on which aspects of the plan might work well and which not, instead focusing on the broader questions of the anthropology and vision of society implicit in the document. I will mostly focus on what is arguably the centerpiece of the plan, the proposal to replace a number of federal anti-government programs (most notably the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and the Section 8 housing program) with “opportunity grants,” that is, funding provided to allow the various states to experiment with more localized anti-poverty programs. Other aspects of the plan—the expansion of the earned income tax credit to childless workers, the easing of mandatory minimum prison sentences, and easing regulations that disproportionately impact the poor—will also be considered, though.
In summary, while there are some very positive aspects to Ryan’s anti-poverty plan, overall it fails to live up to the vision of CST, including what CST has to say about the preferential option for the poor. More specifically, to a striking degree the plan envisions the human person as primarily an individual participant in the market, while neglecting the person’s embeddedness in civil society, in particular the family, the neighborhood, the community association. In contrast, CST claims that while market activity is important, it is at the service of the deeper and richer human goods experienced in civil society, and that poverty encompasses not merely material deprivation but the absence of these social bonds.
But first the positives. I think that with this document, Ryan can finally put to rest the accusation that he is really a Randian wolf in Catholic sheep’s clothing. Ryan’s past enthusiastic endorsement of the individualistic, libertarian, and openly egotistical ethic of Ayn Rand had many wondering how he could square those commitments with his appeals to his Catholic faith. As I have written elsewhere, “despite his lavish praise for Rand, from what I can tell, the main thing he has derived from her work is a focus on personal initiative and responsibility,” and his attraction to Rand is “foolish and “frustrating” because unnecessary. But, as Brian Beutler argues at New Republic, the new anti-poverty plan signals a “divorce” between Ryan and Rand because of its clear compassion for the poor and the activist, even if limited, role it gives to the government in combatting poverty.
Second, Expanding Opportunity in America proposes a holistic vision of human flourishing compatible with that found in CST, and likewise a more holistic understanding of poverty. Ryan writes that “Success ultimately is in the well-being of people, their happiness. And research indicates that work, faith, family, and community are critical ingredients to people’s happiness” (p. 6). By implication, then, poverty includes the absence of these “ingredients.” Ryan criticizes the “tendency to measure success by how much the government spends on programs or how many people it spends money on.” Although a bit tendentious, I think this criticism is relevant for recent Catholic discussions of poverty. For example, although my friend Meghan Clark is certainly right that SNAP is a success for lifting 4.4 million people above the poverty line (in 2010), it and other programs that focus on supplementing income are only partial successes because they do not address the reasons why the poor are unable to meet their needs through their own labor, let alone the other forms of social alienation and deprivation identified by a more holistic definition of poverty.
A critical weakness in Ryan’s plan, however, and in my opinion a fatal one, is the failure of its policy recommendations to reflect the holistic vision of human flourishing briefly outlined in its opening pages. From Ryan’s list of “ingredients” for human well-being—work, faith, family, and community—the focus is almost exclusively on work. A number of its proposals are focused on getting the poor to work: the opportunity grant program will require all able-bodied participants to work, the plan proposes consolidating and enhancing federal job training programs, and one focus of the plan’s efforts to peel back regulation is the easing of burdensome occupational licensing requirements that keep the poor from entering certain occupations. Although it is certainly important to encourage work, it is also important to consider how anti-poverty programs can impact the other dimensions of human well-being, and also how the marketplace itself can hinder flourishing in these areas.
Looking at the welfare states built in the developed world after the Second World War, the political scientists Gøsta Esping-Andersen and Kees van Kersbergen have classified them into three basic types: the liberal state focused on encouraging participation in the market; the social democratic state focused on freeing people from the demands of the market; and the conservative or Christian democratic state which seeks to humanize the market by embedding it within the wider social networks and communities of which people are a part, that is, civil society. Elsewhere (here and here) I have argued that CST best reflects this third type, even if it incorporates elements of the other two.
Ryan’s plan, however, is clearly in the liberal mold; the state’s purpose is to help meet the needs of the truly vulnerable while otherwise encouraging the able-bodied to enter the marketplace with a bit of assistance and the discipline of the state. For Ryan, while the state has a legitimate role in fighting poverty, it is primarily an obstacle to overcoming poverty, hence the focus on devolving authority to the states and local agencies, consolidation, deregulation, etc. CST challenges this vision of the state in two ways. First, CST recognizes a more extensive role for the state in alleviating poverty holistically understood, most notably by nurturing and protecting the “intermediate communities” needed for human flourishing. Second, CST insists that the unbridled marketplace can be just as corrosive of community bonds as the state; forcing the poor into a marketplace unmoored from the demands of community solidarity is replacing one form of deprivation with another. These two broad challenges to Ryan’s vision can be translated into three criticisms of his anti-poverty plan.
First, the plan has no proposal for strengthening marriage. This is shocking because the link between the breakdown of marriage and poverty has become an important part of mainstream discussions of poverty (as I noted here). Similarly, the envisioned opportunity grant programs and corresponding work requirements imagine the recipients as individuals rather than members of families. While valuing paid labor, the liberal vision neglects or even denigrates the other types of labor necessary for a healthy community–childcare, volunteerism, activism—instead assuming that the absence of a paycheck necessarily indicates sloth. Making the work requirement applicable to households rather than individuals would allow families to more freely make their own choices about which types of labor will best build up their family and community (while admittedly leaving unaddressed the serious issue of single parents).
Second, the plan does not adequately consider the poor as active participants in their own communities. Although some have criticized as “paternalistic” the plan’s suggestion that local organizations help recipients map out an “opportunity plan” to meet their life goals, the more serious problem is that the plan gives no role to the poor themselves in planning the programs designed to meet their needs. Likewise, the plan does not consider that associations of the poor themselves, such as neighborhood associations or work co-ops, might be effective in combatting poverty; the poor are always the recipients of someone else’s charity. These ideas are not ruled out by the plan, but they do not seem to be what Ryan was imagining.
Lastly, while the plan encourages the poor to enter the marketplace, it ignores how the community, and in particular the government, affects whether or not the marketplace can actually meet the needs of the poor. For example, many (including Clark in the post linked above) have criticized earlier “block grant” proposals because, unlike programs such as SNAP whose funding can be quickly adjusted during economic downturns, grants to the states would be difficult to adjust. In the new plan, Ryan addresses these concerns, proposing various ways this problem could be addressed (p. 16). Robert Greenstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities suggests that even these fixes would not overcome the problem, but more importantly the problem of economic downturns reveals a fundamental contradiction in the plan: funding would increase at precisely the moment when recipients would be least able to meet the work requirements, due to the lack of jobs in a recession. The plan implicitly assumes that the primary cause of unemployment is a lack of initiative on the part of the poor, downplaying how the organization of the economy, government policy, and technology contribute to structural unemployment. Here again we see an individualism that neglects the role of the community.
The blogger Michael Sean Winters has argued that Catholics need to give Ryan a hearing on poverty instead of dismissing him out of hand. Expanding Opportunity in America proves Winters right; it is a serious proposal that Catholics should discuss and debate. This does not mean accepting it wholesale, however, as CST provides a comprehensive vision and a rigorous set of criteria for evaluating policy, and, I believe, a critical judgment on Ryan’s plan.