By Sister Simone Campbell, SSS
In the middle of May I had the opportunity to meet briefly with Congressman Paul Ryan, Chairman of the House Budget Committee. That meeting is still echoing in my mind as I try to find ways to bridge his understanding of the issues of poverty and what we know from our work in economically challenged communities.
I was struck that when I opened the meeting with my affirmation of his examining the issue of poverty he told me that some Democrats were angry with him for working on “their” issue. We both agreed that Pope Francis says that we all need to be concerned about those living in poverty and to have dialogue about the best way forward.
Congressman Ryan sees that the conservative movement has done good things in education with charter schools and vouchers. I said that it was good for those who could take advantage of them, but it left behind in public schools the most struggling and challenged students. This weakened the educational experience for those who did not get into a charter school. I tried to point out that any program has successes and some unintended negative consequences. I think he agreed.
Then we tried to have a conversation about what he was learning about poverty. He sees that what we need is a growing economy in order to create jobs and take advantage of improved education. It was easy to agree that a growing economy is important, but my concern is what we can do about wages. I told him the story of Jason, whom I wrote about in the last issue of Connection. I told him, “Jason had decided to pay his workers more than minimum wage. He was paying above $10.10 an hour to his lowest-paid workers and was providing benefits. He said he did it as an ethical stance, but it annoyed him that many business owners he knows lament government spending, yet pay their workers so little that those workers need to use government benefits to survive. This business owner said that it did not seem right to have the government subsidizing his competitors’ businesses.”
Congressman Ryan seemed a bit baffled by the story and was surprised that I might be suggesting there be a minimum for wages that would get people out of poverty. He believed that would be wrong for business, but he could not respond to Jason’s frustration at his competitors using the safety net in order to keep their costs down and increase profits. I suggested that maybe there could be some incentives to employers to pay a living wage (like an additional tax break). His response was that there already was a tax benefit because they can deduct wages from their gross receipts as part of the cost of doing business. To my mind this does not give an incentive to raising wages, but we did not meet on this idea.
Also missing from the conversation was any idea that government has a role in stimulating the economy and increasing job creation and wages. At this point, our brief 15 minutes was up. In hindsight I wish I had pointed out paragraph 204 of the Pope’s exhortation, Joy of the Gospel, when he says, “Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programs, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality.”
As we ended, I thanked him for his work on the issue and encouraged him to learn of the importance of safety-net programs for the working poor. The ladder of wages is flat and that, at its heart, is a source of much of the poverty in our nation.
This meeting was an important opportunity for me to try to lift up the reality that we have met through these years. But I felt like we are each filing our “reality” into our preconceived file folders of policy choices. How do we break through to the new insights and leave behind the sound bites and political posturing?
This is what Pope Francis challenges us to do when he says, “As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.” (Par. 202)
We at NETWORK have a challenge ahead. It seems we are eager to reject the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, but we appear to be more reluctant to try some new ways forward. The frightening part seems to be that to try something new we have to be willing to let go of some of the current programs that serve our struggling families. Can we agree that no one program will be the solution to all ills? Can we agree that any program will have some unintended adverse consequences that will then need to be remedied? Can we talk with folks who believe that growing business is the way forward? Can they agree that it isn’t the ONLY way forward?
Paul Ryan sees that education is a key to addressing poverty and I agree with him. But it is not the only thing that needs to be done. We need to have important conversations that focus on “both/and” if we are going to create a future where people working full time are no longer living in poverty. Let us do the hard missionary work of listening deeply to diverse perspectives and moving forward to create something new. Our goal needs to be to work towards a society where all of our residents live together in the dignity of being children of our loving creator.