Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan said Oct. 24 that he believes reforming poverty aid programs and allowing religious and civil institutions to flourish is the most effective and compassionate way to help the millions of Americans in poverty.
“Americans are a compassionate people, and there’s a consensus in this country about our fundamental obligations to society’s most vulnerable,” he said in a policy address at Cleveland State University on Wednesday.
“Those obligations are not what we are debating in politics,” he explained. “Most times, the real debate is about whether they are best met by private groups or by the government.”
Ryan argued that the poor will receive more relief from “a dynamic, free-enterprise-based economy that fosters economic growth and opportunity and upward mobility” than from expansive federal government programs.
The Wisconsin congressman – who is Catholic – has faced criticism from numerous poverty relief groups over his recent budget proposal, which would cut funding levels of several prominent social aid programs.
Ryan rejected accusations that he believes the poor should be left to “fend for themselves.” Rather, he argued that he believes in “true compassion and upward mobility” based on “real reforms for lifting people out of poverty.”
A country’s compassion is not simply measured by how much the federal government spends, he said, calling for Americans to “take a hard look” at the federal government’s approach to poverty in the last 50 years, which he described as “centralized, bureaucratic, top-down.”
This system has caused problems, he said, leading to dependency and harming families and communities. These problems became so apparent that by the 1990s a major welfare reform law was “passed by a Republican Congress and signed by a Democratic president,” he noted.
Ryan argued that the reforms were successful, leading to lower welfare enrollment without increases in hunger or poverty. Millions of Americans achieved greater levels of independence, while employment levels for single mothers rose and child poverty rates fell more than 20 percent in four years.
Due to their success, the congressman asserted, these reforms should be applied to other anti-poverty programs as well.
“In most of these programs, especially in recent years, we’re still trying to measure compassion by how much government spends, not by how many people we help escape from poverty,” he said.
In the past year, Ryan said, the federal and state governments spent the equivalent of $22,000 per poor American on need-based programs. Yet one in six Americans remains in poverty, and the number of food stamp recipients has increased by 15 million in recent years.
Ryan promoted helping those in poverty by more efficiently using funding and giving states more power to tailor anti-poverty programs to fit “the unique needs of their citizens.”
This approach was beneficial when applied to welfare and can also be used in Medicaid and food stamps, he said.
“The federal government would continue to provide the resources, but we would remove endless federal mandates and restrictions that hamper state efforts to make these programs more effective,” he explained.
Ryan also underscored the need for strong communities.
He explained that “there has to be a balance – allowing government to act for the common good, while leaving private groups free to do the work that only they can do.”
Civil society – defined as families, neighborhoods, churches, charities and private associations – makes up the “vast middle ground between the government and the individual.”
These institutions are critical because they are “where we live our lives,” he said. “They shape our character, give our lives direction, and help make us a self-governing people.”
Ryan told stories of communities rallying around those in need during times of trouble.
“What’s really at work here is the spirit of the Lord, and there is no end to the good that it can inspire,” he said. “Government can’t replace that.”
Rather, he said, government must respect the rights and freedom of institutions that perform “essential and honorable work” in society.
But standing in contrast to that vision of government and society is the federal mandate that requires Catholic hospitals, charities and universities to violate their principles by offering contraception, sterilization and related products in their health insurance plans.
“This mandate isn’t just a threat to religious charities. It’s a threat to all those who turn to them in times of need,” the congressman said. “In the name of strengthening our safety net, this mandate and others will weaken it.”
Instead of “more taxes and coercive mandates,” he said, there must be a greater respect for the work of private associations in aiding the poor in ways that government alone cannot.