“Bread for me is a material question. Bread for my neighbor is a spiritual one,” wrote Nikolai Berdyaev, a 19th-20th c. Russian philosopher and theologian. Is there a more important spiritual question than this one? Today may be a particularly good time to ask it in America.
I took a recent USC graduate to lunch last week. I sort of “adopted” her early in her freshman year. She grew up in poverty less than a mile from our campus. That proximity was crucial, as it made her eligible for our USC “Neighborhood Academic Initiative”. Another saving grace was her impatience. When she got to be a teenager, the oldest of four children, she reached a turning point of frustration with the chaotic consequences of living in poverty with a young single mother. She got herself into foster care and then fought to find a stable living situation after a few bad placements. She stayed with the NAI’s academic enrichment program through her high school years and did well in school, earning her a scholarship to USC. “People think I’m strong, but really I’m just afraid,” she once told me. “If I don’t work harder than other people, I’ll end up on the street.”
One day in her freshman year she came to my office, crying. “I went to the dining hall today but I couldn’t eat. All that food. I could eat anything I want. But my little sister called me this morning to say they had nothing to eat at my mom’s house. How could I eat when my brothers and sisters are hungry, just a few blocks away?”
Indeed, how can any of us eat or sleep when our brothers and sisters live in poverty?
Over lunch we celebrated her graduation and her recent hiring in a full-time job at the university. As always, she’s working hard and going beyond the expectations of her bosses. She was boggled by the paycheck and the benefits. “Jim,” she said, leaning over toward me with eyes wide, “they give you sick leave! And paid vacation! Like, they pay you even when you aren’t at work!” It was all I could do to restrain myself from weeping. Middle-class life was an entirely new experience for her. She had no role models in her early years to let her know what it was like.
That’s what happens when you are poor, and are surrounded by other poor people. A recent study describes how poverty is getting more concentrated in certain neighborhoods across the US. It’s another harmful effect of the growing income inequality in the United States.
Poverty isn’t a simple problem with a single answer. But it absolutely demands a response. There was a time when our nation took this spiritual question seriously. Contrary to conservatives’ claims, the War on Poverty programs begun in the 1960’s brought down the American poverty rate significantly. “Under the most widely cited poverty measure…. the poverty rate fell from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012.” (Center on Poverty and Budget Priorities)
That’s still an unacceptable percentage in a nation as otherwise rich as ours. And the official statistic does not account for the millions who are living on the edge of destitution.
Increasing economic opportunity is fundamental to the solution: people need jobs that pay decent wages and offer decent benefits. The free market doesn’t and won’t solve that problem on its own: government must create jobs in both the public and private sectors. The Earned Income Tax Credit and Social Security need to pay out substantially larger benefits. Housing policy must change to create many more affordable units and expand home ownership for lower-income Americans. America needs a postal banking system similar to ones that exist in Japan and Europe in order to make banking affordable and accessible for low-income people. Public education and job training programs need reform and more funding in order to make low-income people work-ready.
America’s social safety net is tattered, inadequate, and inefficient. We could do a much better job of addressing and preventing poverty by redirecting existing resources, increasing funding for them overall, and rationalizing the tax codes. A short, pithy analysis of our system compared to safety nets in Europe appeared in The Economist magazine, hardly a mouthpiece for frothy leftists, a few years ago: “If America’s tax system represents a missed opportunity to redistribute income while improving efficiency, it is its spending system that makes its overall policy far less progressive than that of other rich countries. Its cash transfers are stingy. For all the conservatives’ insinuations of loafers living on handouts, America spends less than half as much as the average OECD country on cash transfers for people of working age…. the federal government “spends” four times as much on subsidising housing for the richest 20% of Americans (via the mortgage-interest deduction) than it spends on public housing for the poorest fifth.”
Much is known about how to end poverty in America once and for all, but the political will hasn’t been there to follow through. But that could change. Paul Ryan, a leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives, just gave a speech outlining the conclusions of an in-depth study he made of America’s social safety net. His speech invites serious bipartisan discussion about reforms and improvements in the system, even though few of his specific proposals have merit. The essence of his plan is a federally-funded block-grant to replace many federal programs such as Food Stamps, TANF welfare for families, child care, and Section 8 housing vouchers, allowing states to come up with their own integrated safety net programs. But his assumption that states are better than the federal government at implementing welfare systems has no basis in current or past reality. If we could trust the states to take poverty seriously, why have dozens of states refused to accept federal funds to expand Medicare under Obamacare? Sadly, poor people in the poorest states need to be protected from the heartlessness of their state governments. That’s why the federal government got involved in fighting poverty in the first place. The Center for American Progress offered a vigorous rebuttal to Ryan’s speech: “Rather than a repackaged Ryan budget, we need a renewed focus on boosting wages, bringing our work and family policies into the 21st century, and investing in human capital to increase mobility and unlock opportunity for all Americans.”
Many parts of the federal welfare system work very well in reducing poverty: the SNAP/Food Stamp program is remarkably effective, and devolving it to the states would only reduce its efficiency. One federal program that Ryan would enhance is the Earned Income Tax Credit, a sort of reverse-income tax.
Progressive-minded people should celebrate the fact that a Tea Party Republican is at least starting to take the question of poverty seriously. Ryan’s speech is a departure from his previous intimations that churches ought to be in charge of the public’s response to hunger and homelessness. (Have a look at my “musing” on why this assertion by Ryan was absurd.) Bread for my neighbor is a spiritual question, but that doesn’t mean that the churches and temples and mosques can be expected to provide all the required bread. On the contrary, the Spirit moves religious people to change the political and economic system in order to make sure there is enough bread for everyone.
Ryan’s speech should be welcomed as an opening to a political process leading to reform and enhancement of our social safety nets for our most vulnerable citizens. There are some federal safety net programs that require fundamental change of the sort that some Republicans might support. The Section 8 housing subsidy for the poor is so woefully under-funded that in many jurisdictions its vouchers are issued by lottery. The waiting list for vouchers in Los Angeles County is about 10 years long. That makes the program a failure in terms of equity, equality, adequacy, and efficiency. The same is true of the TANF welfare system for families, which replaced AFDC welfare in the 1990’s. The benefits are so low and the requirements to get them so onerous that it only reaches a fraction of the families that are technically eligible. Shifting funds from Section 8 and TANF into a commensurately much bigger EITC benefit might be a more efficient, effective, and dignified way to reduce poverty.
If Paul Ryan is willing to compromise his anti-government, anti-taxation political dogma for the cause, then there’s hope that his speech will be the dawn of bi-partisan cooperation to end poverty in America. Let’s follow the Spirit moving us to find bread for our neighbors, and embrace Ryan’s concern. Let’s consider his proposals and engage with him where possible, for the sake of the brothers and sisters my young friend left behind in the poverty of South Los Angeles.