The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has rightly criticized Paul Ryan’s proposed draconian cuts to social programs that aid the poor. Catholic scholars rebuked Ryan for claiming that his budget reflects principles of Catholic social teaching. Ryan deserves credit for elevating Catholic social teaching to a central place in the discussion. Unfortunately, he badly misunderstands two bedrock principles of CST—solidarity and subsidiarity. He also misinterprets how these principles apply to the scourge of poverty in the United States.
Ryan correctly identifies one aspect of solidarity, namely the “recognition of the common ties that unite all human beings in equal dignity,” as he puts it. However, Catholic social teaching adopted the view of Heinrich Pesch, S.J., (1854-1926) and Oswald von Nell-Breuning S.J., (1890-1991), who envisioned three aspects of solidarity: 1) solidarity as de facto human interdependence; 2) solidarity as an ethical imperative; and 3) solidarity as a principle concretized in legislative policies and institutions.
By its very nature, solidarity requires advocating social change on the structural level. This is the case because eliminating the causes of the suffering of the wounded and oppressed requires embodying solidarity in social policies and institutions. In other words, solidarity includes but goes beyond charity to promote justice and human rights, particularly by empowering the marginalized. Charity is important, but never sufficient to meet the needs of the poor, as Pope Benedict reminds us in Caritas in Veritate. Christians must thus foster the common good through “the institutional path—we might also call it the political path—of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbor directly.” As John Paul II argued, the entire social, economic and political order should be shaped by the principle of solidarity.
In his speech at Georgetown University, Ryan claimed that “Civil public dialogue goes to the heart of solidarity, the virtue that does not divide society into classes and groups but builds up the common good of all.” There is a grain of truth here. Solidarity does aim to allow all people to participate in and benefit from the common good. As the philosopher Fr. Józef Tischner of the Polish Solidarnosc movement argued, solidarity excludes no one. However, Pope John Paul II, who developed the concept of solidarity more than any other pope, acknowledged “the positive role of conflict” when it “takes the form of a struggle for social justice.” He also stated solidarity sometimes requires taking the side of the poor when their rights and welfare are jeopardized. Thus, solidarity does not imply “a live and let live” approach to politics; it makes demands of all of us. Solidarity does not seek to vanquish oppressors, but it always insists on the truth and challenges oppressors to see themselves for what they are, as Tischner maintained.
Government Is Not the Problem
Ryan also attempts to enfeeble solidarity by flanking it with the principle of subsidiarity. Ryan approvingly cites Pope Benedict’s claim that “… subsidiarity is the most effective antidote against any form of all-encompassing welfare state.” But Ryan fails to acknowledge the positive side of subsidiarity. When possible, it is better for smaller, local groups to solve their own problems. However, Catholic social teaching posits that larger entities, including governments, have a responsibility to assist individuals and communities when they cannot effectively solve their own problems.
Subsidiarity, therefore, does not support Ryan’s libertarian “government is the problem” approach. Official Catholic social teaching has long accorded a positive role for the government in protecting the economic rights and well-being of people. The principle of subsidiarity was developed to ensure that governments work in tandem with individuals and local groups to promote the common good. In other words, subsidiarity protects the right and duty of participation. Persons cannot fulfill their right and duty to participation if they suffer from poverty, discrimination, unemployment, untreated illnesses, etc. Both civil society and the state have the responsibility to create the conditions for the full participation of all in the common good. In the words of Pope John XXIII, “intervention of public authorities that encourages, stimulates, regulates, supplements, and complements, is based on the principle of subsidiarity.”
Contrary to Ryan’s imagination, the current pope has not embraced modern-day laissez faire capitalism or neoliberalism. Rather, Pope Benedict sees the redistribution of wealth through government programs as a necessary fulfillment of subsidiarity, given neoliberal capitalism's strong tendency to generate vast inequality and large swaths of poverty. At times, the pope even sounds a lot like Occupy Wall Street, albeit in slightly more Vaticanese terms: “grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution.”
The pontiff clearly sees a robust role for government, which does not violate the principle of subsidiarity. In addition to wealth redistribution, governments should promote full employment and oversee multiple levels of institutions to ensure access to sufficient food and water. Benedict also decries the slashing of social safety nets and the evisceration of labor unions, which has jeopardized the rights of the poor and workers. He laments erosion of the “solidarity associated with the traditional forms of the social State.” If that doesn’t vex Paul Ryan and Catholic neoconservatives enough, the pope contends that globalization must be governed by authorities at the local, national and international levels in order to foster “economic democracy.”
Those looking to the Polish pope, whom neoconservatives mistakenly dubbed unabashedly pro-capitalist, will search in vain. John Paul II contended governments should not thwart citizens’ efforts to assuage the needs of the poor. However, the state should provide support when necessary. Moreover, the state can take on the lion’s share of responsibility of providing for the rights and welfare of its citizens when intermediary groups cannot fulfill this role (Centesimus Annus, no 48).
What does subsidiarity look like in the current American context? Take the case of job creation and the right to work. Private employers directly enable the fulfillment of this right by providing jobs. But the state must provide the legal, economic and social frameworks necessary for the realization of this right. As John Paul claimed, “the state has a duty to sustain business activities by creating conditions which will ensure job opportunities, by stimulating those activities where they are lacking or by supporting them in moments of crisis” (emphasis mine). The American Jobs Act, decried by Paul Ryan as excessive government, attempts to do just this.
Subsidiarity in Action
In the area of social welfare, the popes envisioned government supporting local groups and agencies and directly assisting the needy as necessary. This is exactly what the U.S. government does today. In fact, the government enables Catholic organizations (and many others) to engage in various works of mercy. Over the last two years, the government increased funding levels for this purpose, even allocating federal stimulus money to faith-based charities. In 2010 Catholic Charities alone received about $2.9 billion from the federal government, which is 62 percent of its entire budget. Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota, like most of its counterparts around the country, relied on the government for about 80 percent of its revenue. This is the principal of subsidiarity in action. The government supports those who can best provide not only material assistance, but also respond to “deeper human need,” as John Paul put it.
Ryan believes that the government’s role in combatting poverty should be radically reduced, leaving the taxpayer to do as she or he pleases with her income and assets. He disregards Catholicism’s insistence on the universal destination of all goods and the duty to contribute to the common good by paying taxes in proportion to one’s ability. In Ryan’s words, “basic economics and basic morality both tell us that people have a right to keep and decide how to spend their hard-earned dollars.” The fate of the poor, in this view, should be largely left to private organizations.
Can churches, synagogues, mosques and other NGO’s sufficiently rise to the task, using only charitable donations? Not according to economist Robert Reich. Only about 10 percent of all charitable contributions aid the poor, Reich says. The rest (about $40 billion in tax breaks for charitable giving) goes to maintaining religious organizations (properties, salaries, etc.), the arts and universities (which, as I have written elsewhere, increasingly exclude the poor). Moreover, Ronald Sider demonstrates in Fixing the Moral Deficit: A Balanced Way to Balance the Budget that private initiatives provide only 6 percent of all food assistance in the United States. Replacing the federal government’s $485 billion dollar antipoverty programs would require every U.S. congregation to contribute an additional $1.5 million dollars. Sider therefore concludes that “churches should do more, but they cannot begin to replace” the federal government in addressing poverty.
As Ryan acknowledged, the level of poverty today in the United States constitutes “exceptional circumstances,” to use John Paul II’s phase. The amount of need is so great—1 in 6 Americans experience poverty according to Ryan’s Georgetown speech—that charitable organizations cannot possibly meet it. In other words, ameliorating the situation requires direct government involvement, in addition to facilitating the work of organizations like Catholic Charities.
Demystifying the Causes of Poverty
Ryan provides the wrong solutions to poverty for two reasons. As I have argued, he misinterprets solidarity and subsidiarity. He also misunderstands poverty’s causes in the United States. Contrary to Ryan's contention, the causes of poverty are not rooted in an expansive government and a culture of dependency on hand-outs. Rather, it is rooted in government’s failure to perform its duties in accordance with the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. In other words, “smaller government” caused the problem.
First, the welfare reform of 1996 precipitated a substantial rise in poverty. A new report from the National Poverty Center concludes that households living in extreme poverty—less than $2 a day—increased by 130 percent to 1.46 million. The number of children suffering the same fate doubled to 2.8 million. According to the report, “this growth has been concentrated among those groups that were most affected by the 1996 welfare reform.” A recent New York Times article highlighted the human costs, stating that those dropped from welfare rolls—mainly single mothers—resorted to desperate measures to survive. “They have sold food stamps, sold blood, skipped meals, shoplifted, doubled up with friends, scavenged trash bins for bottles and cans and returned to relationships with violent partners—all with children in tow.”
Many people lucky enough to have steady jobs earn “poverty wages.” Seventy-five percent of the working-age adult poor have jobs. As the Economic Policy Institute reports, steady gains in productivity over several decades have translated into more wealth for stockholders, but little gain for many wage-earners.
In addition, the government failed to adequately regulate the financial sector, which led to the economic collapse of 2008. Unemployment skyrocketed, in turn swelling the level of poverty. As Simon Johnson and James Kwak argue in their acclaimed book, 13 Bankers: “the failure to regulate not only derivatives, but many other financial innovations, made possible a decade-long financial frenzy that ultimately create the worst financial crisis and deepest recession the world has endured since World War II.”
Finally, the rising U.S debt is not the cause of poverty, nor does it threaten social protections for the poor in the way Ryan contends. Economist Charles Clark has debunked this debunked this myth, calling for the virtue of truth telling to augment solidarity and subsidiarity in the discussion of the federal budget. Clark’s essay explains in more detail than possible here why the economics of Ryan’s claims are false.
We should be grateful that Paul Ryan has reintroduced the concepts of solidarity and subsidiarity to our political discourse. Now we need to make sure they remain there, and that we understand and embody them in a way faithful to the Catholic tradition.