The National Catholic Review
‘Vanguard’ experiments in fighting poverty

Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a two-part series. We asked two prominent members of Congress, both Catholics with famous names, to respond to Pope Francis’ repeated calls to empower the poor. The second response, by Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III, Democrat of Massachusetts, is online and will appear in print on Oct. 20. 

Some years before he became Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was talking with a friend about serving the poor. When helping people in need, he said, his first concern was material: “Are you hungry? Here, here is something to eat.” But poverty isn’t just a form of deprivation; it’s also a form of isolation. People always need to eat, and often they need something more, like a teacher or a job. In other words, they need other people. So “the poor must not be perpetually marginalized,” the cardinal warned. Instead, “we [must] integrate them into our community.”

I could not agree more. There is a lot of untapped potential in this country; I have seen it firsthand. In the past two years, I have traveled to 10 different communities that are fighting poverty every day, from a homeless shelter in Denver to a rehab center in San Antonio. Every person I have met has had a different story. But every story they have told has had the same message: Once people find a niche and put down roots, they draw strength from the people around them and they grow. So to expand opportunity in this country, we have to bring the poor back into our communities. And the safety net can serve as the missing link by helping people find work.

Market and Government

Before we can repair the safety net, we have to repair the thinking behind it. In all these debates over poverty, people tend to think there are two competing principles at work: the market and the government. In other words, people think you have to pin all your hopes on either private charity or public assistance. That is a false choice—because both the market and the government are tools. We use them for our own purposes. And we should make them work together to enhance human dignity. So the question is not whether we should use the market or the government; it is how to use them both. And one of my guides is Catholic social teaching. Instead of two competing principles, I rely on two complementary principles: solidarity and subsidiarity.

Solidarity is a shared commitment to the common good. It is the belief that we are all in this together, so we should look out for each other, both in our private lives and in our public policy. As St. Paul once wrote, “If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy” (1 Cor 12:26). Our goal, then, is to foster a healthy economy, one that promotes the most talented and protects the most vulnerable. This is what we mean by a preferential option for the poor. Just as a doctor heals a wound to help the whole body, we take care of people in need because the whole country will benefit.

Subsidiarity, meanwhile, is a prudent deference to the people closest to the problem. Whenever there is hardship—whether it is unemployment, addiction or illness—we first look to the people on the ground to solve it because they know their communities best. They know the simple but vital facts: Who is looking for a job? Who is hiring? What skills are in demand? And only when the community is unable to solve the problem on its own do we ask the government to step in. And even then, government must work with the people in the community, not against them.

Every public policy should strike a balance between these two principles. Too much solidarity would blind us to our different needs. And too much subsidiarity would blind us to our shared goals. These principles are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are mutually reinforcing. If solidarity is the team spirit, then subsidiarity is the game plan. We have to remember that though each part of our country looks out for the whole, each part makes a different contribution to the whole. As St. Paul wrote, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?” (1 Cor 12:17).

Confronting ‘Deep’ Poverty

Good Catholics can disagree over how to strike that balance, and we do. But in the fight against poverty, I think we can all agree that we can do better. Each year, the federal government spends almost $800 billion on at least 92 different programs to help people in need. And yet the poverty rate is the highest in a generation. Over the last three years, deep poverty has been the highest on record. The fact is, too many families are living paycheck to paycheck. They are working harder and harder to get ahead, and yet they are falling further and further behind.

And we have to understand why. Today, technology is changing constantly—and with it the global economy. But the rest of our society has not kept up. Everything from our education system to our safety net still works according to bureaucratic formulas set in the 20th century. So many of our people do not have the skills they need to compete in the 21st century. They cannot find work, and as a result, they cannot take part.

And because the federal government is so disorganized and dysfunctional, Washington is in many ways deepening the divide: It is not helping people get back into the workforce; in fact, it is effectively encouraging them to stay out. Many federal programs are means-tested, so as families earn more money, they get less aid. Any system that concentrates aid on the most vulnerable will face this tension. But the current system exacerbates it by layering on program after program without ensuring any coordination among them.

Take an example: a single mom with one child. Imagine she works full-time year-round for $7.25 an hour (or $15,080 a year). To give you some perspective, she is making just below the poverty line for a family of two, which was $15,730 in 2014. Now imagine she is offered a raise to $10.35 an hour (or $21,528 a year). If she accepts, much of her federal aid will instantly disappear. At this point, thanks to higher taxes and lower benefits, she will effectively keep only 10 cents of every extra dollar she earns. So the federal government is effectively discouraging her from getting ahead.

This is a crucial flaw in the safety net—one that demands correction. “There is no worse dispossession,” Cardinal Bergoglio himself said years ago, “than not being able to earn one’s own bread, than being denied the dignity of work.” The status quo does not respect the dignity of work, and that is why it is unacceptable.

What we need to do is coordinate aid to families in need. We need to get the public and private sector pulling in the same direction, so we can smooth the transition from assistance to success. Each person’s needs fit into a coherent whole: a career. And each person fits into a coherent whole: a community. So if the public and private sector work together, we can offer a more personalized, customized form of aid—one that recognizes both a person’s needs and their strengths.

Opportunity Awaits

I do not have all the answers. Nobody does. But I do think we can build a safety net that embraces both the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. I would begin by starting a pilot program, which I would call the Opportunity Grant. It would consolidate up to 11 federal programs into one stream of funding to participating states. The idea would be to let states try different ways of providing aid and then to test the results—in other words, more flexibility in exchange for more accountability. Participation would be voluntary; no state would have to join. And we would not expand the program until we had tested a number of different approaches and gathered all the evidence.

Here is how it would work. Each state that wanted to participate would submit a plan to the federal government. That plan would lay out in detail the state’s proposed alternative. If everything passed muster, the federal government would give the green light. And the state would get more flexibility to combine programs such as food stamps, housing subsidies, child-care assistance and cash welfare.

The federal government would grant approval on four conditions. First, the state would have to spend all the funding on people in need; it could not use that money on other priorities like roads or bridges. Second, the state would have to maintain work requirements and time limits for every able-bodied recipient—just as there are for cash welfare today. Third, the state would have to offer at least two service providers. The state welfare agency could not be the only game in town. And fourth, the state would have to measure progress through a neutral third party.

If approved, the state could use that money to expand state programs and to partner with local service providers. So families in need would have a choice. There would not just be a state agency or a federal agency. Instead, they could choose among non-profits like Catholic Charities USA, for-profits like America Works or even community groups unique to their neighborhood. And instead of offering a bunch of different benefits, these groups could offer a more holistic form of aid through case management.

Earlier this year, I saw the benefits of case management in action when I met a woman at Catholic Charities in Racine, Wis. When she first came to Catholic Charities, she was homeless and unemployed. So she sat down with a caseworker and put together a life plan. With the caseworker’s help, she and her fiancé each found work, and now she is earning her degree in health management. The point is, with someone to coordinate her aid, she did not just find a job; she started a career.

The woman told me one of the most important things her caseworker did was give her advice. She had received a number of federal benefits before, but she never knew how to manage them all. With the case manager’s help, she learned how to write a budget and stick to it. Catholic Charities gave her greater control over her life, and now she is getting her life back on track.

‘Reconceiving’ Government

Under the Opportunity Grant, states could partner with a number of local service providers, so we could have more such success stories. I would not force states to use case management. I mean only to highlight one promising model. States would have to maintain work requirements and time limits, but they would be free to use whatever methods they preferred as long as they tested the results. Not everyone would need case management, and states would have the flexibility to provide different types of aid for people in different circumstances.

And all this time, a neutral third party would keep tabs on each provider and its success rate. This third party would keep track of key metrics: How many people are finding jobs? How many people are getting off assistance? How many people are moving out of poverty? Any provider who came up short could no longer participate. And at the end of the program, we would pool the results and go from there.

So I would reconceive the federal government’s role. No longer would it try to supplant our local communities. Instead it would try to support them. It would work hand in hand with community groups like Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services and others. In my view, the federal government would be the rearguard; it would protect the supply lines. But the people in our communities would be the vanguard; they would fight poverty on the front lines. They would lead this effort, and Washington would follow their lead.

Under my proposal, people could use federal aid to get from where they are to where they want to be: a new job, a new neighborhood, a new life. By channeling the market forces of choice and competition, government could help get people back in the hustle and bustle of life.

In short, we would have a stronger, more stable safety net, based on the twin principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. By drawing more attention to people in need, we would maintain the principle of solidarity. And we would revive the principle of subsidiarity by harnessing the knowledge of our local communities.

I understand that not everybody, nor every Catholic, will agree with my proposal. But at the very least, I hope to start a conversation. I will be the first to acknowledge there is plenty of room for debate. But I hope we all recognize, as Pope Francis has said, we have to make room for families in need. We have to welcome them back into our communities—because that is where they belong, and that is where they can take root and flourish.

Hon. Paul Ryan, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, is an eight-term member of Congress from Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District.


Ernest Martinson | 10/12/2014 - 3:32pm

We are all free to devote ourselves to the poor and hurting. But we are no longer free to do that if we delegate this devotion to government. At that point the government will forcibly take from us by force of arms to disperse dole to another.
We are all on the public dole although not equitably. The poor receive the least since they are a minority, the middle class receive the most because they are the majority, and the rich receive the most on a per capita basis and according to rules approved by the voting majority.

Andrew Eppink | 10/6/2014 - 12:48pm

I think Ryan's going to have a hard time even partially convincing this audience of the effectiveness of moral capitalism in generating material wealth, as convicted as this group is of their belief in the efficacy of socialistic schemes of one kind or another, socialism which is obviously unworkable, indeed so very socially destructive.

Andrew Eppink | 10/6/2014 - 10:47pm

Immoral/amoral capitalism is obviously oppressive but, even there, at least people are doing something, not like socialism, waiting for the next handout. Tho genuine charity to people doing their best is equally obviously necessary.

Churchill was right. Capitalism is unequally divided wealth while socialism is equally divided poverty.

Bobby Warren | 10/13/2014 - 11:14am

That, of course, assumes a false dichotomy of Capitalism vs. Socialism. I, for one, am in favor of a Distributist economic system.

Andrew Eppink | 10/6/2014 - 11:11pm

Or like the old soviets, "We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us."

Mike Van Cleve | 10/5/2014 - 11:25am

I welcme Rerpresentative Ryan's contribution to this discussion. There was much that I liked in what I hear about opportunity grants. Ryan mentions that subsidiarity is crucial to his [lan. America Magazine has a good definition that seems close to what I learned in the seminary-"Subsidiarity envisions not a small government, but a strong, limited one that encourages intermediate bodies and organizations (families, community groups, unions, businesses) to contribute to the common good. It envisions a strong government that protects individuals and small intermediate bodies from the actions of large organizations—not just the state but corporations as well."
I have also heard this stated as the smallest group of individuals should have a sayover their destiny
For me in Texas that means that Texas billionaires in RiverOaks heere in Texas should not have the only say over the problems people experience in the 5th ward.
I would envision asking people in poverty to describe what they would like their community to be, This may have great differences between rural and urban between differentethnic groups. Perhaps this could be done through townhouses or even better planning sessions with maximal input from as many people as possible. Some of these suggestions would be impractical or contradictory. Some would say I dont know how but here is what I would like to see. This would be a very interesting and fruitful enterprise

Joseph J Dunn | 10/8/2014 - 7:35pm

"This would be a very interesting and fruitful exercise." One of Mr. Ryan's suggestions, mentioned only briefly in this article but more fully in his budget proposal, is for case managers who would have the discussions you propose with individual clients as they receive assistance, so that effective solutions (rather than continued dependence) can be achieved. I agree, this would probably be very fruitful.

Carl Heltzel | 10/5/2014 - 8:24am

Let us consider the primary considerations that satisfy the needs of those living in poverty. It is clearly better for a person that is not able to provide for themselves, regardless of reason, to become a community member that can provide for themselves, and others. I doubt there is disagreement, except that time is a most influential factor. It is most difficult for the human condition in man, woman or child to consider life changing options when survival without participation in immoral or illegal acts is a reality.

Our human condition wants to believe there is a solution to a given problem, yet the human condition is such that the problem of poverty will require many solutions. Problems that require many solutions are best served as "far down the line" as possible. The solutions are not limited to direct resolution of a problem (delivery of food) but also the evaluation of effort and audit of resources used. The resolution becomes local.

In support of this effort, the funding sources should remain local in the form of contributions to local community programs designed to bringing people out of poverty, for making the transition. (A service providing housing for single mothers going to college may be eligible while an animal shelter would not be eligible.) Contributions to designated charities should be eligible for a tax deduction and a tax credit. An important goal for this program should be to maximize the participation in the program so the individual taxed at the lower rate receives the same dollar benefit as the individual taxed at the maximum rate. Funding for the tax credits/deduction will come from a reduction in research grants considering the mating habits of the Amazon green toad during the first two weeks in August and similar research projects or, the fines paid by Wall Street Banks to the Federal Government and their agencies.

Ernest Martinson | 10/12/2014 - 4:01pm

Contributions to charity is good since it is voluntary. It should not be tax deductible since income taxation itself is involuntary and is a legal theft of earnings. Surely a laborer is worthy of her wages and the principle of subsidiarity seems to say she knows better than government at any level of how to spend it.

Jeffry Korgen | 10/4/2014 - 10:09pm

Was Paul Ryan asleep for HALF of his class on subsidiarity? He completely forgot the part about when the smaller social unit cannot meet the social and economic needs of its members, a larger social unit should step in. A great example of the application of this element of subsidiarity is the federal implementation of the school lunch program. When half of the World War II draftees failed their physicals, the federal government stepped in with a Big Government Program.

Robert Klahn | 10/9/2014 - 3:30pm

Thank you for bringing in a subject that has very much been on my mind. Though I believe it was WWI draftees, but I may be wrong. I have the documents to show it, but haven't looked at them in years.

Richard Savage | 10/4/2014 - 10:54am

Looks like the left wing of the Democratic Party voted here early and often. We've had 50 years of the left wing's "War on Poverty",spent $22 trillion, destroyed the Black family, and still have just as much poverty. Continuing the same and expecting different results is the classic definition of insanity.

Mr. Ryan offers the obvious and much-needed correction to the wasteful bureaucratic nightmare LBJ, Pelosi, Reid, Obama and their ilk have created and made worse. Get the responsibility back to the local level. Five years into the Obama Recovery, median household income is falling; most middle class Americans think we're still in a recession - for good reason.

"In the latest grim tiding of the public mood, merely 42% think the American dream that "if you work hard, you'll get ahead" remains true, down from 53% in 2012 and 50% in 2010. According to the Public Religion Research Institute poll last week, the steepest declines in belief in the last two years were among people under age 30 (down 16 percentage points), women (14 points) and Democrats (17)." [Wall St Journal, 2 Oct]

Time for a change; I hope Mr. Ryan gets the chance to implement it.

Robert Klahn | 10/9/2014 - 3:56pm

Actually, the war on poverty didn't out last LBJ's presidency by very long at all. After that republican presidents turned it into a combination welfare/business subsidy program. Or have you forgotten that the War on Poverty was to be based on jobs? The EITC may be played as a welfare program, but in the real world it is a business subsidy. It allows a business to pay lower wages and still find workers who can live on it with the EITC. End the EITC and just raise the minimum wage to what the EITC would move the person's total income up to and the worker has exactly the same incentive to work. The only difference is, the employer is not getting subsidized by the government.

Oh, and the Black family was not destroyed by the War on Poverty, but by the war on Blacks of the republican Southern Strategy. More like the republican war on families, since every injury suffered by the Black families of America is reflected in white families, just moving more slowly.

The decline in the belief that if you work hard you'll get ahead merely reflects the reality of 8 years of republican mismanagement ending in a depression.

KEN LOVASIK | 10/4/2014 - 10:33am

I recently met Sr. Sheila Campbell (Nuns on the Bus) who knows Paul Ryan personally. Sr. Sheila heads a Network, a Catholic advocacy group that lobbies Congressmen and Senators on social justice issues. Her impression of Paul Ryan is that of a man who "just doesn't get it" and who uses a pseudo-concern for the poor as a campaign tactic. I have the same impression ... a clanging gong!

Robert Klahn | 10/9/2014 - 4:01pm

Even what he writes here gives the slippery feel of that pseudo-concern.

Andrew Eppink | 10/6/2014 - 12:56pm

Nuns on the Bus... Holy cow. Max credibility. I simply can't believe people are dumb enough to fall for antics like this but there it is. The only way out of this is moral capitalism, immoral/amoral capitalism obviously oppressive. But, even there, however corruptly, people are working, trying to accomplish something. Not like socialism where everyone sits around waiting for handouts. Churchill was right. Capitalism is unequally divided wealth while socialism is equally divided poverty. Or, as they used to say in the old Soviet Union, "We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us." Reality - anathema to libs.

Robert Klahn | 10/9/2014 - 4:00pm

Quoting Donna Kinkead, "Totally concur with Sr. Sheila."

Make that two.

Robert Klahn | 10/9/2014 - 3:59pm

Take a look at the socialist societies that have run any country. They have practically zero welfare. Their entire system is based on everyone working.

I suspect you really don't know what socialism is.

Donna Kinkead | 10/4/2014 - 9:07pm

Totally concur with Sr. Sheila.

Hannah Dugan | 10/3/2014 - 7:41pm

Your latter day Howard Roark

Andrew Russell | 10/3/2014 - 5:35pm

Re. the Hon. Mr. Ryan's statement about subsidiarity, "And only when the community is unable to solve the problem on its own do we ask the government to step in." Yet again he shows a misunderstanding of subsidiarity, or a wishful conflation of subsidiarity with federalism. In the principle of subsidiarity, the higher authority always has the role of ensuring the common good. It is not a secondary role that only steps in if the local government can not handle the situation, but a particular role of ordering and coordinating all efforts to the common good. The higher order has a leadership role, not a subordinate role - subsidiarity is not the same as subordinate. We have unfortunately seen the Governor of Wisconsin, a man of like mind with Paul Ryan, opt out of federal programs to run those programs through state government controlled by his party. He exchanged health care for one group of the poor for health care for another group of the poor, and cost the state millions of dollars. This is the result of local control without federal oversite to protect the common good. I do not see how Mr. Ryan's proposal is different, or how Mr. Ryan's proposals coincide with Catholic teaching.

Donna Kinkead | 10/4/2014 - 9:08pm

Agree. His ideas are anti-Catholic teaching.

Steven Reynolds | 10/3/2014 - 4:56pm

Some of Congressman Ryan's performance as VP candidate (staged soup kitchen visits) and his hopefully past infatuation with the thought of Ayn Rand naturally leds to skepticism. I prefer though to assume that he is maturing in his thought and trying to take his faith seriously. Kudos to America staff for seeking out views of Mr. Ryan, and my Congressman Joe Kennedy. Both have submitted thoughtful essays.

Roy Van Brunt | 10/3/2014 - 4:54pm

The Congressman must have very large cheeks - in order to accommodate his tongue when he wrote all of this.

Jim Lein | 10/3/2014 - 1:27pm

The safety net is needed to keep people from falling down financially so far that basic needs aren't met. Until we rebuild this net to that point, all other discussion is meaningless and can be disingenuous, as commented on earlier. We ended AFDC in 1996 and have been chiseling away on basic needs assistance ever since. And Rep. Ryan wants to chisel more. If people's basic needs aren't met, they function more in hunker down mode than venture out mode. Based on his studies of Appalachia in the late 1960s, sociologist R. A. Ball called this the analgesic subculture, where people tend to be in pain relieving mode rather than goal directed mode. Same thing with kids in school. Hungry people don't function well in a competitive culture.

Dorothy Carter | 10/3/2014 - 1:23pm

This is indeed disingenuous. Paul Ryan has stated more than once that he follows the "philosophy" of Ayn Rand. That is incompatible with Catholicism, or indeed with any Christian faith. Rand wrote that altruism only weakens a society. She specifically condemned the idea that anyone should give his/her life for another. If we are followers of Christ, we recognize this as His highest gift to us, and it is one that we should try to emulate, devoting ourselves to the poor and hurting. Ryan must be able to completely compartmentalize his two opposing beliefs.

Mike Evans | 10/3/2014 - 1:08pm

Disingenous at best. His call for the solution to be outright grants to local states (and perhaps cities) insures a race to the bottom which already exists with regard to states implementing such federal programs as SSI, food stamps, the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid, Welfare cash aid, eligibility for unemployment assistance, and a myriad of smaller, less visible programs. It is a proposal to slash the safety net so as to create huge holes that people fall through with no recourse whatsoever. Mr. Ryan is so dedicated to his view of poverty and assumptions about people's behavior when being assisted by government programs, that he cannot see the enormous harm his view causes. It leads directly to hating the poor and blaming them for their own misfortunes. Certainly doesn't seem in line with Catholic social teaching at all.