Paul Ryan defends poverty reform efforts to Catholic nun

U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan speaks at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in May 2016. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan fielded a question from a Catholic nun about health care and poverty during a national television event last night, insisting that his political goals of reforming federal anti-poverty programs are not in conflict with his Catholic faith.

“I know that you’re Catholic, as am I, and it seems to me that most of the Republicans in the Congress are not willing to stand with the poor and working class as evidenced in the recent debates about health care and the anticipated tax reform,” Sister Erica Jordan, O.P., said to Mr. Ryan during a live CNN town hall. “So I’d like to ask you how you see yourself upholding the church’s social teaching that has the idea that God is always on the side of the poor and dispossessed, as should we be.”


The crowd gathered in Racine, Wis., Mr. Ryan’s home state, applauded Sister Jordan, part of the community of Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters in southwest Wisconsin.

Mr. Ryan sought common ground, telling the former school principal, “Sister, you may—this may come as a surprise to you, but I completely agree with you. Where we may disagree is on how to achieve that goal.”

Ryan: “Sister, I completely agree with you. Where we may disagree is on how to achieve that goal.”

The speaker, who wrote about the evolution of his thinking on poverty in America in 2014, said that he interprets the church’s teaching that the poor must always be a priority as a mandate for “upward mobility—that means economic growth, that means equality of opportunity.”

Government spending, he argued, has proven ineffective in fighting poverty, and so he supports reform efforts that lower taxes for companies so that they do not move to other countries, keeping jobs in the United States. He argued that federal anti-poverty programs and the tax code are structured in a way that cause some people to decide not to seek work.

“The poor are being marginalized and misaligned in many ways because a lot of the programs that we have, well intended as they may be, are discouraging and disincentivizing work,” Mr. Ryan said, prompting a chorus of boos from the audience.

He said that an unemployed single mother of two risks losing federal benefits should she find a job.

“We have to fix that. And that is why we have to fix it not by just kicking people off callously, but by making sure that we can customize these benefits to help a person get from where she is to where she wants and needs to be,” he continued. “That means we have these benefits phase out in a certain way that fits her needs and goes and fixes it.”

The Baltimore Sun columnist David Zurawik described Mr. Ryan’s response as “patronizing” and the website The Week said Sister Jordan “did not look terribly impressed.”

The speaker did not directly address the part of the sister’s question about health care.

"A lot of the programs that we have, well intended as they may be, are discouraging and disincentivizing work,” Mr. Ryan said, prompting a chorus of boos.

Many Catholic leaders, including more than 7,000 Catholic sisters, condemned proposals championed by Mr. Ryan and his G.O.P. allies in the Senate that attempted to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.

In May, Mr. Ryan celebrated with President Trump at the White House after the House passed a bill repealing Obamacare and replacing it with a tax-credit plan to help with insurance costs.

In response to that vote, Catholic bishops released a statement expressing disappointment with many provisions in that bill, saying it contained “major defects, particularly regarding changes to Medicaid that risk coverage and affordability for millions.”

Despite the White House’s backing, subsequent efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act died in the Senate last month.

Mr. Ryan has a complicated history when it comes to his views about the role of government in fighting poverty.

As the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2012, Mr. Ryan referred repeatedly to the poor as “takers,” a dig at Americans who rely on government assistance to make ends meet. A couple of years later, Mr. Ryan apologized for that characterization, saying he learned from talking to people on the campaign trail that eradicating poverty was more complicated than he believed.

Last year, he told CBS News that he was “wrong” to make such a characterization and in the lead-up to November’s presidential election, Mr. Ryan outlined a G.O.P. anti-poverty plan to reallocate federal money to local charitable organizations. Some Catholic leaders praised Mr. Ryan last year for his attempts to persuade his Republican colleagues to tackle poverty.

During last night’s town hall, the speaker pointed to Catholic Charities as an example of effective anti-poverty programming that he said assists poor people in moving “from where they are to where they need to be” in terms of financial stability.

“If only government would actually help do that, as well, I think we could go a long ways in fighting the root cause of poverty,” he said.

“We’ve got to change our approach, focus on outcomes, focus on the person, and always encourage work, never discourage work, and make sure we can customize benefits so that we can get people out of poverty,” he continued.

But Catholic Charities agencies receive hundreds of millions of dollars from the government each year to run many of their programs, and the group representing local Catholic Charities agencies has taken issue with recent Republican-backed budget proposals that would affect anti-poverty programs.

Earlier this year, the president of Catholic Charities USA, which speaks for 177 local agencies, sent a letter to lawmakers condemning G.O.P. plans to cut Medicaid and other social safety net programs.

“While CCUSA supports the responsible use of our nation’s fiscal resources and has worked consistently to improve effectiveness in anti-poverty programs, reforms that seek only to cut our nation’s social safety net will further strain efforts to meet individual needs and risk pushing more Americans into poverty,” Sister Donna Markham, O.P., wrote on June 20.

Monday’s town hall meeting was the first such event for Mr. Ryan in several months. Leading up to it, a pair of Catholic priests from Wisconsin said they had hoped to attend in order to challenge Mr. Ryan on immigration, telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that they have tried repeatedly to interact with the speaker to no avail.

Mr. Ryan defended how he squares his faith with his politics last night, telling Sister Jordan, “But the point I’m saying, sister, is that’s how I practice my values and my faith and my principles, in trying to apply these principles to fighting poverty more effectively, because the status quo has not been working and I think we can do a whole lot better.”

A video of the exchange was posted on Twitter, below.

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Charles Erlinger
1 year 4 months ago

As Mr. O'Loughlin says, "Mr. Ryan has a complicated history when it comes to his views about the role of government in fighting poverty."

What complicates it is inconsistency. But consistency itself is complicated.

The idea of consistency has captured the passionate attention of us all at one time or another. We probably hear most often that it is good. But many of us sometimes catch ourselves thinking about the contradictions inherent in an indiscriminate endorsement of consistency. Still, that incipient doubt about the goodness of consistency seems to beg for further examination.

Politicians often attack one another for inconsistency. On the other hand, those who are in command of the tools of their profession successfully exercise their powers of persuasion to change the minds of their colleagues and then praise them for the change, that is, praise them for their inconsistency.

Then there is the voter who is torn between being consistent with respect to support of the platform of one of the parties on the one hand, and the doctrines of faith, on the other. A question seems to arise about which values deserve consistency and which do not.

Could it be that we prize consistency in others on matters about which we agree, and praise inconsistency in others on matters about which others “convert” from positions we dislike to positions we like?

What do we think about ourselves on matters of consistency? Are we proud of being consistent and ashamed when we are inconsistent? Are we apologetic when we change our minds and smug when we don’t change?

Then there are the instances when inconsistency in others is a real irritant that we sometimes blame for causing us to make regrettable mistakes. For example, when we trust someone’s position or promise on a matter of importance, and make some kind of commitment based on that promise, and the person changes positions after we have made our commitment. It happens sometimes when we vote, or when we sign contracts.

There are aphorisms and one-liners that have accumulated in our vocabularies and cultural lore that both praise consistency and condemn it. Some say that consistency indicates trustworthiness. Then there are the aphorisms that ruefully point out that consistency in pursuing a course of action that is well known to have failed often in the past, hoping that this time it will turn out better, is a sure sign of irrationality.

On examination, it appears that consistency is not a virtue. It may not be a vice, either. In general practice, it appears to have little to do with truth. How one regards it depends on many factors that have a very loose relation either to truth or falsity. If we are looking for a virtue that might be valued in place of consistency, possibly we could look to prudence.

Richard Bell
1 year 4 months ago

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.” -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Thomas Severin
1 year 4 months ago

What does the above diatribe have to do with addressing the issue of poverty in our country? Words do not solve the problem of poverty , only deeds and deeds based upon genuine compassion for the poor.

Charles Erlinger
1 year 4 months ago

OK, got me on the word diatribe. The point was, words are what Ryan deals in; they comprise his entire ecosystem. But they do not always reveal his current real, policy objectives and priorities, no matter how carefully you compare them over time. You cannot discern, merely by determining the consistency or inconsistency of his statements about his poverty concerns, whether he prioritizes tax reduction over poverty reduction or vice versa at this time. If he does ever reveal it, it may be by mistake. This is why I suggest depending on prudence rather than consistency analysis. The moral virtue of prudence is a cognitive virtue with truth as its formal object. A virtue is a habit so it needs to be cultivated. We may not be up to the task of finding out what we need to know but we can start practicing. (My guess is that Sister Erica is well prepared). In the case at hand, we are looking for the reality about Ryan’s true objectives at this particular time and under these circumstances, never mind what he might have been aiming for in the past. And if he gets squeezed by resource limits, which objective will he sacrifice in favor of the other?

Christopher Lochner
1 year 4 months ago

Ultimately, the problem lies in the fact that while Speaker Ryan is a good Catholic he is also a devotee of Ayn Rand whose philosophy was and still is as directly in opposition to Catholic teaching as is possible; I believe this relates to the admonishment against the serving of two masters. As a critic of the movie "Atlas Shrugged" once said, "Who is this 'we'?" This is a very modern and very selfishly ego based philosophy, winner take all don't you know! IMHO.

Charles Vekert
1 year 4 months ago

Mr. Lochner, you are quite right. Ryan has no felt compassion for the poor. When asked about the millions who would lose insurance under his "plan," he smiled and shrugged his shoulders. Incidentally, one of Ayn Rand's books was "The Virtue of Selfishness." She was an atheist and a materialist.

Ellen B
1 year 4 months ago

I have always found it humorous that Paul Ryan is a devotee of Ayn Rand. Any reader of the book Atlas Shrugged would wonder, how on earth does Mr Ryan believe that he would be included in the group that is allowed in Galt's Gulch?

Michael Seredick
1 year 4 months ago

Generalizations about Republicans or Democrats are meaningless. On Catholic news comment streams, one would think all Democrats favor abortion and all Republicans are anti poor people. Solutions are best found with collaboration. Consider marriage, in which two people commonly have mega-problems agreeing. Amplify that thought to the millions of American voters. How does a person like Paul Ryan please anyone? I don't have the answer, but it would be good for posters to stop thinking Republicans never have an abortion, and only Democrats care for the poor.

1 year 4 months ago

As someone who has made a career of working with individuals with intellectual disabilities, I have found Mr. Ryan's positions over the years quite disturbing. Although the goal of self-sufficiency may sound positive it is not a realistic goal for many individuals who have developmental disabilities, those with significant mental health issues, those with health issues, and the aging. Repealing the Affordable Care Act without a constructive replacement that takes into account the ups and downs in people's lives is irresponsible in my mind. Passing bills without knowing what the impact will be on citizens is also irresponsible. State "block grants" for Medicaid may sound like a good idea but does not factor into its plan an increasing number of citizens requiring such help over time. There needs to be safety nets that are funded with the federal government's help to insure people are cared for and respected. The rhetoric from Mr. Ryan and many other Republican Representatives and Senators does not lead me to believe they have thought through the impact their initiatives will have on real people who do not have the advantages that those who have had the advantage of a strong education and are healthy may have. I ask Mr. Ryan to look more closely at the ramifications on the changes for which Republicans are advocating on the many people who would be negatively impacted by these potential changes.

I also ask that Mr. Ryan and his fellow Congress persons have the courage to speak up when President Trump is advocating for plans that will harm people and not help them. Examples include the President's immigration policies, the treatment of those in the US without appropriate paperwork, the building of the wall between the US and Mexico, the care for our environment, the US's relationships with other countries, the inability to maintain a position, the encouragement of violence and unrest promoted throughout his campaign, and changes to the Affordable Care Act that will harm and not help people.

Michael Olson
1 year 4 months ago

Paul Ryan doesn't seem to realize that poverty is an immediate problem that affects
people right now. It cannot wait for politicians in comfortable circumstances to
try and see if something, some day can be done about it. He is living in a dream world.

Robert Killoren
1 year 4 months ago

The U.S. Economic system is designed to keep the poor down and marginalized. The administration wants drastic cuts to programs that support the poor like education and school lunches, raising the minimum wage so that the people who work hard to keep a home and feed their children can earn a living wage. The Republicans have thwarted unions at every turn, organizations that protect the workers from greedy, exploitative businesses. There are few safety nets left and Ryan's proposals will destroy them. He says social welfare programs have never worked, but they would not be needed if the Republican theories of trickle down worked, or if they passed an infrastructure and jobs bill at some point in the past nine and a half years. They preferred to try to ruin Obama's presidency rather than help the American people. The local and state governments have abdicated their role to promote the general welfare of their people. They slash budgets throwing more people out of jobs and defunding social programs and education and tell them to get their help from Washington D.C. There is nothing in Ryan's plans that will give the poor the ways and means to raise themselves up. Supporting the general welfare (which the Republicans have fought for the past six years) would help raise all boats. Favoring the 1% does not create jobs, it gives more profit, it does not help the poor it just cuts the taxes of the rich. None of this meets the Catholic standards of social justice. Mr. Speaker, I would not recommend you speak to the Pope the way you did to that sister. Or maybe I would. I thought it was interesting that the previous Speaker quit politics after hearing what the Pope had to say. He was interested in saving his soul.

John Walton
1 year 4 months ago

@Robert, your statement that "favoring the 1% does not create jobs" is factually incorrect. The most rapid rate of increase in real personal incomes for the bottom 10% of workers came AFTER Clinton cut taxes as part of "The Contract with America", the second most rapid rate took place after Kennedy cut taxes.

Charles Vekert
1 year 4 months ago

The Kennedy and Clinton tax cuts were broad and did not just give benefits to the top 1&. I note that you have not mentioned any Republican tax cuts. The proposed Trump tax cuts will give tens of thousands to the richest and a couple hundred to the middle class, if that. Even so the Trump tax cuts could be useful if our present problem was a lack of capital for new investment. But that is not the problem. Businesses have plenty of cash on hand.

This is a complicated issue. Read Paul Krugman's columns in the NY Times if you want to get a layman's understanding at least.

Deacon Chris Schneider
1 year 4 months ago

Poverty is a problem the Church must address... not a government; that entity has a different job. The 'blurring' of these lines between Church and government have and will continue to cause issues...

Stanley Kopacz
1 year 4 months ago

What rule says the state CAN'T address poverty? If the electorate supports it, and I hope they will once more, that is their right. However, more effective than taxing the rich and powerful would be getting rid of the breaks that tilt the playing field 80° in their favor. But I'm sure there'll still be enough poor to allow people like us to earn points for heaven. After all, it IS really just about us.

Thomas Severin
1 year 4 months ago

One of the primary roles of government is to address those issues that citizens or private entities are incapable dealing with own their own. Issues such as poverty and health care are incapable of being addressed by individual or private charitable agencies alone. They are simply too large and complex for an entity like the Church to handle.

E.Patrick Mosman
1 year 4 months ago

To opjustice
For Sister Jordan,
Your challenge of Rep.Ryan made all the progressive/liberal media and as well as the liberal Catholic publication Commonweal. FYI my comment to the editors of Commonweal is below :
-----Original Message-----

To: editors
Sent: Fri, Aug 25, 2017 2:06 pm
Subject: The Catholic Sister Who Challenged Paul Ryan on CNN…
To the Editor,
"watches MSNBC, listens to National Public Radio, never misses PBS Newshour"
And the good sister Jordan claims to be a "newsjunkie" and limits her sources to the most liberal,progressive media outlets in the daily news spectrum. She apparently doesn't have time for CNN or else failed to mention it.
Sister Jordan should spend more time reading the Gospels and she would find several that Jesus was not a big-government socialist provider with regard to helping those in need and reducing individuals personal responsibility to only “Love the Neighbor’ and replacing it with government programs is a misreading of His message.
Jesus Christ made the point “to render to Caesar the things
that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” with no
guidelines as to how the Romans were to spend the tax monies. “For you
will have the poor always with you” Matthew 26.11 and nowhere in the New
Testament does Jesus Christ lay the responsibility for caring for the
poor, the sick the hungry or thirsty, the homeless or any oppressed
people on any governmental body. He did not cite King Herod, the priests
of the temple, the local politicians or the Roman powers as the source
of Charity. He made it an individual responsibility time after time in
His sermons, in His parables and in His own acts. The Good Samaritan was not an example of “Love thy neighbor” because he stopped at the inn to make a 911 call but because he acted, providing aid, comfort and
financial assistance to his neighbor. Jesus Christ’s teachings cannot be
used to support states becoming the major or only source of charitable acts.


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