The Debt Ceiling And Work Requirements: Why The GOP Doesn’t Represent Christianity

The Debt Ceiling And Work Requirements: Why The GOP Doesn’t Represent Christianity May 31, 2023

DonkeyHotey: Kevin McCarthy, Who Pushed For Work Requirements In A Debt Ceiling Deal / Wikimedia Commons

Sadly, it seems that in the United States (and other countries), many politicians are interested in flexing their power. They do not care about governing, creating helpful, sane policies. Instead, they want to find a way to control the people. A common way to do this is to put in laws which keep those who are poorer, or weaker, in their place, pushing them down so they do not challenge those in power. There seems to be some kind of Social Darwinism behind their decisions as they think if they don’t act in such a way someone else will come in power and push them down instead. Nonetheless, they know they have to hide this fact. Their rhetoric is often full of words expressing their desire to make things better for the United States, and yet, what they mean is making things better for them, their friends, and their allies. They are not interested in the welfare of their country, especially the average person in it. This seems to be especially true with members of the Republican Party (the GOP). They claim that the laws and policies they want to enact are necessary, but if one examines the consequences of those policies, they do not do what they are claimed to do, but actually make things worse for the ordinary citizen. They are interested in transforming the nation, removing the social safety net which was put in place in the 20th century, and so, to take things back to the way they were in the 19th and early 20th century. We can see this in the kinds of laws being promoted in various Red States. Why else would they change labor laws so that young children can work dangerous jobs? But it seems this is just the first step, because, once they have made it a possibility, it does not take long for someone to suggest it becomes mandatory. And while some might question if this is where Red States are going, we must keep in mind the mentality of Republicans in relation to work. They think ordinary, poor people should be made to work. They think ordinary people should have little to any ability to leverage themselves so as to find better work or to create better working conditions (hence their hostility towards unions). They think every capable person should be forced to work, which means, once children are seen as candidates for jobs, they will be told they must work instead of receive any help from the government. Thus, the mentality which lies behind the promotion of so-called “work requirements” for those who are “able” will meet with Republican notions of eligibility (children are eligible to work) leading to a potentially terrible situation where children will be forced to work instead of go to school (which, given the way many Republicans consider education, should not be surprising).

The mentality many in the GOP have in regard the poor and needy, which is vastly different from their treatment with the rich and powerful, is one which looks down upon them and sees them as worthless, and so, not deserving any help our handouts (while the rich can and should be given more and more of them, as can be seen in the way the GOP was willing to forgive PPP loans). It is this mentality which lies behind many of the demands the GOP put in place in order to deal with the debt ceiling – demands to deal with the debt they previously agreed to and helped put in place. They think the rich and powerful should be free to renegotiate their debts to society, placing more and more demands upon the weak and the poor to deal with all the kick-backs they give to the rich. This means, whatever deals they make are not trustworthy; they are seen as tools to move the nation further and further to the extreme right, where each time they renegotiate the debt or the budget, they force the nation closer to becoming a radical, authoritarian state (and if people question this, all one has to do is look at how many leaders in the GOP promote authoritarian dictators like Orbán or even Putin). One way we see this has been played out recently is in regards work requirements, trying to put more work requirements in place for those who are in need, whether it be for food stamps, or health care. They have forced the issue so that those receiving food stamps, SNAP, will now have to go through extended red tape and bureaucracy, proving they fulfill arbitrary “work requirements” in order to get food. It is clear, GOP wants to do this with Medicaid, and will push for it in their next round of negotiations.

While, on paper, work requirements might sound good, they might sound like they will help people help themselves, in reality, they do not do this. They make things worse. The people needing aid are desperate, and those who hire them will know this, and so will use and abuse them, saying if they do not go along with what is expected of them, they will be fired and get no more aid.  Similarly, there is all kinds of red tape which is created, and such red tape itself is expensive, and turns out to be most costly than to have a system without it.  And it often becomes impossible for many of those in need to fill out all the forms the red tape expects of them while also doing all else expected of them, so that it becomes easy to throw them out without any help. All in all, it becomes a system which has one purpose in mind: exploitation of those in need, and in the end, the rich and powerful get more rich and powerful and the poor and needy suffer worse until they come to their own premature end.

It’s a shame that the GOP is often presented as religious, and not just religious, but mostly Christian. They become, in this fashion, a political representation of Christianity, but in doing so, they undermine Christianity with their non-Christian ideologies. Their interests are far from the interests promoted by Scripture and the Christian tradition. They ignore the preferential option for the poor and instead seem to have a preferential option for the rich and powerful. When Christianity is used in this fashion, it should not be surprising that many of those with a sound moral conscience will find something is wrong with what is being presented and so opt out of the Christian faith. They will come to see religion like Marx did, that is, as a tool used for political exploitation. This certainly can be seen in the way the GOP engages work.

Again, it is important to repeat a basic truth: work requirements do not help the poor. Study after study also shows they also do not help the economy. All that is required to put them in action hurt those they are supposed to help. Similarly, economic benefits which the GOP claims come from do not happen, but instead, as Lily Roberts at the Center for American Progress explains, they make things economically worse for the country:

Federal attempts to restrict access to food, health coverage, and other supports would be expensive to administer and do not lead to better financial outcomes for individuals. Instead, the creation of these additional bureaucratic hurdles is inconvenient and burdensome to participants and government officials alike. New legislation in Iowa will more than double the state’s SNAP costs while creating paperwork headaches for hundreds of thousands of residents. Congress must not adopt this approach at the federal level, as it would simply increase burdens and costs for millions without improving Americans’ well-being.

Thus, not only do they not help the economy, which is often the reason the general public is given for their need, they certainly do not benefit the poor. That is, they do not work in the way the public is told they work, as Elaine Waxman and Heather Hahn also indicate at Urban Institutes:

The problem with work requirements as a proposed solution to an already low risk of work disincentives is that they don’t actually achieve their objectives. Over the past several years, researchers have delved into the impact of work requirements on employment in US public benefit programs and found that requirements don’t facilitate their stated primary goal of increasing work and earnings.

A 2021 study on the effects of reinstating work requirements and work-related time limits for certain Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants in nine states found no evidence the rules increased employment or annual earnings. What they did do was impose complex administrative procedures on both participants and state administrators and dramatically decrease SNAP participation.

Most politicians must know this. They have access to the data. That means, the real reason why they want them in place is because of what they do, which is exploit the poor and needy. That suggests all the demands which GOP has for making work requirements a necessary precondition for any aid is in reality aimed for something else, that is, aimed at making for a larger and larger class of exploited people who will be forced to sell themselves off into some sort of slavery just to survive. Slaves, after all, were fed, so long as they were useful to their masters. The poor will be fed so long as they also are made “useful,” and economics will be used to determine the minimum necessary to give to the poor to get the maximum amount of use out of them.

There is nothing Christian about this. Those who would say Paul says people should work if they are to eat ignore the context in which he said this. It was not a universal rule, but a contextual statement which does not override the way Scripture which suggests the poor are to be helped.  Paul, certainly, did not want us to be idle, to be slothful, but that is a different thing then expecting us to accept exploitation. Christian doctrine, indeed, Scripture, says the poor are to be helped and treated with dignity: “For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land” (Deut. 15:11 RSV). God, with grace and compassion, is said to help the poor and needy, showing the way the faithful should treat them:

Happy is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God,  who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith for ever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous (Ps. 146:5-8 RSV).

Thus, instead of looking down upon one who is in need with contempt, trying to justify that contempt by saying there must be something wrong with them because they are in such a wretched state, Christians (and anyone who seeks after justice) should be there to defend them and their dignity. Jesus is found in and with them. Christians should be moved by the suffering of the poor. They should take pity on those in need instead of finding a way to abuse them by the rule of law. “Do not pass by the poor, and let not his tattered rags incite thee to contempt, but let them rather move thee to pity thy fellow-creature.” [1] Christians are told to stand by those in need, to do what they can to truly help them. “If you ever see a poor person being harmed, do something about it. When that person is harmed, stand by him. He is despised because of poverty; the just person is at his side.” [2] Those who create systems of exploitation which “gives aid to the poor” by feeding them so they can be exploited more does not help them, because they undermine the fundamental human dignity of the poor. This principle, that the poor and needy should he helped and lifted up instead of exploited, sadly, seems to be something Christians have rejected as they promote the lies which undermine their dignity and want to help those who would otherwise exploit them. Instead of the preferential option for the poor, they have been led to support the rich, ignoring the fact that the poor are made poor by the rich and the systematic structures of sin the rich put in place to keep their place in society. St. Jerome could very well be speaking to them when he said:

It is almost impossible for the rich man to be rich without robbing the poor. That is the meaning behind the words: ‘He lurks in ambush with the rich.’ Whenever the rich persecute the Christians, we may say that the devil is lurking in ambush with them. ‘He lies in wait to catch the poor; he catches the poor and drops them off into his net. With his noose, he brings them down.’ This is the ungodly one; this is the devil. ‘The poor,’ not only in riches, but also in spirit: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ ‘With his noose he brings them down.’ Whom? The poor, of course. [3]

Thus, Christian teaching rejects the notion of pushing the poor further down so that the rich can continue to come out on top. It entirely rejects the idea that the poor should be blamed for their failure to make it out of poverty when the system stands against them in favor of the rich. Authentic Christian teaching is that those who are well-off must use what they have to help lift the poor, and not on the basis that the poor give them anything in return (leading to their exploitation):

The well-off have a positive duty to be actively concerned for the poor, the strong for the weak, and it is the business of ministers of religion to use every possible means of moral suasion to ensure that those duties are fulfilled. [4]

Where is the USCCB when the GOP continues to undermine the preferential option for the poor in all their policies? If they say something it is very weak, and ineffective, because they seem more interested in secondary issues, the so-called ‘culture war,” than they are with fundamental problems in society. They are not fulfilling their duty to the poor. They are not speaking out to the rich, using the power of exhortation, as well as their spiritual authority, to warn them of the consequences of their actions. They, indeed, encourage people to take the GOP seriously when  they act pious to get elected, all the while knowing the GOP and its policies stand harshly against the Christian faith. They stand silent as systematic structures of evil are reinforced. They are relatively silent when the rich are able to make more and more wealth on the backs of the downtrodden. The USCCB, and all Christian leaders, should be obligated to focus on the denigration of the Christian message and the preferential option of the poor coming from those in positions of power. The less they do so, the more culpable they will be for what happens to those who suffer thanks to the structures of sin put in place. Perhaps such Christian leaders should consider words of St. Isidore. They should do what he has told them to do if they want to be good Christian leaders:

When the poor are oppressed by their rulers, good priests [bishops] – in order to deliver them from this – offer them the help of their protection and they do not fear the hostility of any of their enemies. Rather, they openly confront the oppressors of the poor, they reproach them, they excommunicate them, and they have little fear of their plots to harm them even if they are able to harm them: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). [5]

One of the most fundamental teachings of the Christian faith is its teaching on God’s grace, that God freely gives it to those in need. No one can earn it, and so, no one deserves it. And just as we all need grace, and can and will receive it from God’s bounty, so we should treat the world following God’s example. Help is not to be given to those we think deserve it, but to all, so that in and through such help, the poor can be properly lifted up and made better (just as grace lifts us up and makes us holy). This means nothing should be put in the way of such aid, making it harder, if not impossible, for those who need it to get it:

Toward the poor also and those handicapped by various disabilities, let a kinder generosity be held out, that gratitude might be rendered to the “grace of God” by the voices “of many,” and that they needy might obtain refreshment by our fasts. God is pleased by no devotion of the faithful more than what is spent on the poor, and where he finds “merciful” care, there he recognizes the likeness of his own holiness. [6]

This kindness, this generosity, is often seen coming more from non-Christians than Christians. This shows us how much Christianity has lost its way. While non-Christians might not understand sin the way Christians do, they confront the systematic structures of sin, working to take them down, while Christians end up reinforcing them. Who will Jesus approve, those who say Lord, Lord and engage all kinds of piety, or those who act like God, show mercy, and help give not just food, shelter, and clothing, but dignity to those in need? Certainly, Jesus gave us the answer, if we but listen (cf. Matt. 25:31-46). Or we can listen to St Isidore, who likewise, tells us::

The oppressors of the poor should know that they are deserving of a more serious sentence when they have prevailed over those whom they desired to injure. For they are to be condemned to a more atrocious future punishment to the extent that they have behaved more forcefully in this world against the life of the wretched ones.[7]

Showing mercy and grace to those in need is to be expected by all Christians, and as such, doing so serves as a sign of their faith:

But the true sign of a Christian is the following: to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, to endure hunger and thirst, to be poor in spirit, humble and contemptible in one’s own eyes, and for a man to beseech God both day and night that he might stand firmly in the truth. [8]

What does that make of those Christians who reject the poor and find ways to keep pushing them down? What does this say of those who do not have any faith but do what Jesus desires from humanity? Who, once again, is the good servant of God? Jesus, once again, gave us the answer, if we are willing to listen.

Systematic structures of sin have been put in place to benefit the rich and powerful and make things worse for the poor and needy. Those who make things needlessly harder for the poor, and then try to pretend to be pious Christians, create a great scandal in the world. If they are not corrected by Christian leaders (like the USCCB), if their ideology is not denounced, what will the rest of the world think Christianity is about? When we allow culture war distractions, secondary, minor things, get in the way, we should not be surprised that non-Christians think this is what Christianity is about and will want nothing to do with it.

Sadly, it appears that the GOP is interested in using all the power they have to hurt those without power, especially those who are poor and in need. They use all kinds of sophistry to convince their followers that their course of action is the best. But all they do is create more and more structures of sin, structures which reinforce their own private good at the expense of the rest of the country.  They are not interested in the welfare of the American people. If they were, they would not threaten default. They would not put the country in debt and then threaten to wash their hands of the debt if the public does not heed their demands. Their words are the opposite of their actions. They say they want to help the people and the future of the country, but all their policies do the reverse. They say they don’t want to put the future of the nation at risk, which is why they are making budgetary demands, but they are doing so, not during budgetary talks seeking to implement new policies in the future, but with the debt they already agreed to. That shows they cannot be trusted. They really are not interested in the future, in the welfare of today’s children, and the children of the future. This can be seen with their treatment with the climate crisis, a crisis which threatens mass extinction if it is not properly dealt with today. Sadly, they have power, and so they can hold the country hostage and force some of their demands to be heeded. We must remember who did this. We must remember who caused the situation to happen. We must remember who threatened the country and do what we can to make sure they don’t have that power in the future. For that is what anyone who truly cares for the future of the country will do.

[1] St. Photius, The Homilies of Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople. Trans. Cyril Mango (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1958; repr. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017), 61 [Homily 2].

[2] Origen, Homilies on the Psalms: Codex Monacensis Graecus 314. Trans. Joseph W. Trigg (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2020), 445 [Homily Psalm 81].

[3] St. Jerome, The Homilies of Saint Jerome: Volume I (1-59 On the Psalms). Trans. Marie Liguori Ewald, IHM (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1963), 36-7 [Homily 4].

[4] Vladimir Solovyey, God, Man & The Church. The Spiritual Foundations Of Life. Trans. Donald Attwater (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 2016), 41.

[5] St. Isidore of Seville, Sententiae. Trans. Thomas L. Knoebel (New York: Newman Press, 2018),   195.

[6] St Leo the Great, Sermons. Trans. Jane Patricia Freeland CSJB and Agnes Josephine Conway SSJ (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1996), 208 [Sermon 48].

[7] St. Isidore of Seville, Sententiae, 208.

[8] Saint Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian. Trans. Monks of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery. Rev. 2nd ed (Boston, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011), 565 [First Epistle of Saint Macarius of Alexandria On the Christian Discipline, not St Isaac].


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