Paul Ryan and Simone Campbell can agree on one thing: We have to find a better way to help the poor

By Scott Alessi| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
blog Politics Social Justice

Sister Simone Campbell and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan spent the summer of 2012 touring the highways of America, each preaching their own message about how the Catholic faith can guide our nation's care for the poor. Campbell, executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby NETWORK, argued during her Nuns on the Bus tour that helping the least among us is a critical component of a moral budget. Ryan, chairman of the House of Representatives’ Budget Committee, claimed his Catholic values were the foundation of his budget proposal that slashed funding for government programs designed to provide material assistance to those in need.

Campbell and her fellow nuns went out into communities to mobilize the faithful against a budget proposal that they felt would hurt the poor. Ryan, during an unsuccessful bid for the White House as Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential pick, attempted to sell voters on the idea that cutting government spending was beneficial to those who were hit hard by a down economy. During a highly polarizing political campaign, Catholics were sharply divided over which side represented “true” Catholic teaching on the matter: The nuns drew hefty criticism from Republican supporters, while proponents of Catholic social teaching lambasted Ryan’s application of church teaching to his policies.

With all of the election drama now behind us, perhaps we’re in a better place to focus on the real issue, the one that hasn’t gone away or gotten much better during the last year—the massive numbers of people in our country who still struggle to make ends meet. So finally, after all of their talk about the best ways to address poverty, Campbell and Ryan came face to face yesterday during a House budget hearing entitled, “The War on Poverty: A progress report.”

Campbell’s testimony addressed the very real challenges many Americans face, including those whose wages aren’t enough to cover their expenses, and how government aid like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, aka food stamps) helps to keep them afloat. “As more people needed help, the program provided it to them,” Campbell said of SNAP, “giving the working poor the help they need to bridge the gap between their wages and the costs of raising the families, and giving the jobless and most vulnerable the ability to sustain themselves.” Addressing poverty, Campbell said, will not mean cutting these government programs, but rather finding new ways to "promote opportunity" for the poor while still providing a strong safety net.

Ryan, in his opening remarks, acknowledged the country’s failures in the war on poverty and blamed government programs as being part of the problem, not the solution. To Ryan, the supposed safety net is actually a hindrance to the poor that keeps them from getting out of poverty, and it is our local communities, not the federal government, that should be taking the lead in helping people in need. Ryan did, however, welcome a conversation on how to rethink our approach to poverty and, most importantly, how to get people out of it.

Though their approaches are still completely at odds, it was good to see Ryan and Campbell coming together as part of a joint discussion on how to help the poor in this country. Hopefully we are past the point of Catholics taking sides in the debate and trying to claim that one of the two viewpoints is any more or less Catholic than the other. Catholic teaching makes clear what the goal of our efforts should be in addressing poverty, but how we get there is certainly open to interpretation, and Ryan and Campbell clearly have different interpretations. What is most important is that both sides are working toward the same goal, and that they can find a mutually acceptable way of getting there.

For families who are worried about being able to pay this month’s rent or putting dinner on the table for their children tomorrow night, that’s really all that matters. Regardless of what solution to poverty we arrive at, for too many of our brothers and sisters we can’t get there soon enough.

Image: Sister Simone Campbell testifies before the House of Representatives' Budget Committee July 31. Courtesy of NETWORK, A Catholic Social Justice Lobby