Jesuits Rebuke Ryan
Georgetown Catholics, seeking to help the poor, promote welfare dependency.

Congressman Paul Ryan speaks at Georgetown University


The Georgetowners also refer to “endemic poverty,” but poverty is not endemic. It is a matter of program design. About designs, practical women and men can argue.

The federal Treasury has spent many times more dollars each year than it would cost to eliminate poverty, if poverty were simply an economic matter. Giving the money directly to the poor is not an expensive endeavor compared with what we are doing now, which is filtering it through a huge poverty bureaucracy. Do the arithmetic. Give each poor family as much as it needs to bring its annual income up to $30,000 each year. In sheer dollar terms, that would move each family out of poverty. It would not, of course, end the family’s dependency on annual government grants.

The same logic applies to the problem of hunger. Which is the bigger problem for the poor today, hunger — or obesity? Either way, we cannot solve the problem by giving people a fish each day. That only creates dependency, day after day, generation after generation.

The problem, then, is not mainly a financial problem, is it? If it were, it would be simple to fix. The problem is the deeper one of people’s inability to rely on their own efforts when it comes to caring for the elderly and the children who rely on them.

But why should the government contribute to dependency? It is dependency, for the first time in American history, that has become endemic, not poverty as a merely financial matter.

The most important challenge today is to help the poor rise out of poverty. Most immigrants to America escape poverty in five to ten years, on their own. For millions of newcomers, the old tried-and-true method still works. By contrast, the federal government’s “welfare plantation” has blocked advancement for millions of the poor. It has done so by entrapping them with the honeypot of government subsidies, no demands made.

The Catholic left flank seems to think that big government cures poverty. The right flank observes that big government enforces and prolongs poverty.

Turn from the poor to the very wealthy. Go ahead, tax venture capital. Deprive workers of new jobs in new industries never before discovered. Go ahead. But do not be surprised if actual tax revenues fall, once you have raised tax rates. Raising tax rates does not automatically mean the government will bring in higher tax revenues.

The “problem” of the wealthiest 1 percent is essentially that the Left uses the category to foment envy. Tax the topmost more if you want to. Confiscate a third of all their income every year. Go ahead, punish yourself. The more the government confiscates, the more the government punishes the very charities that, the Georgetowners note, are “strained to the breaking point” today. Go ahead, deprive these charities of gifts from the wealthy.

Georgetown would not be nearly as beautiful a campus as it is today were it not for the freely given gifts of the wealthy. That is true also of the most beautiful artistic patrimony in history, sponsored as gifts by wealthy patrons of the Catholic Church in the late medieval and Renaissance periods. For millennia, our artistic heritage has depended for its survival on wealthy patrons.

So have most of the hospitals, universities, charities, orphanages, libraries, and civic services founded out of the compassion inculcated by Jewish and Christian wisdom down the ages. The wealthy are not in all cases the enemy of the public. They are often its best guardians, bringing beauty to light through the sponsorship of art and especially in works of mercy. The wealthy have often done much more good than government has. “True religion,” Deuteronomy teaches, “is to care for the widow and orphan.”

The left flank and the right flank look at the world differently. Which flank has the more realistic view? The pendulum may swing back and forth. The important point is that Catholic social teaching has two flanks, not one. The two flanks fare better in fruitful contact with each another, in interchange and respectful argument.

It is the same with the American eagle. The eagle is a warrior of a bird, with the sharpest of eyes and two powerful wings. With only one wing, it would spiral down into the ground.

— Michael Novak is distinguished visiting professor at Ave Maria University and co-author, with Jana Novak, of Washington’s God.


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