“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.
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.
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California