During a House Budget Committee hearing Wednesday, Sister Simone Campbell, a Catholic nun and executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby, testified to lawmakers about the effectiveness of government subsidized welfare programs and public-private partnerships with faith-based charities. Campbell highlighted the foundational nature of charity and economic justice to the Catholic Church and heralded the difference that federal assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), the Earned Income Tax Credit, and Head Start initiatives have made in the lives of America’s most vulnerable.
But not everyone at the hearing was happy with Campbell’s faith-based support for federal programs that help the poor. Instead of focusing on how the government can assist the millions of Americans who struggle to put food on the table, Rep. Reid Ribble (R-WI) indicted Campbell and the Catholic Church for not doing enough to fix poverty on their own, asking, “What is the church doing wrong that they have to come to the government to get so much help?”
Campbell shot back, “Justice comes before charity… Everyone has a right to eat, and therefore there is a governmental responsibility to ensure everyone’s capacity to eat. Love and care makes a difference, but the issues are so big there isn’t sufficient charitable dollars there.”
Indeed, by placing the responsibility of social welfare on the Catholic church, Ribble ignored the federal government’s long history of working with faith groups to help guarantee equal protection and economic mobility for all Americans. Catholic Charities, for example, is one of the largest charities in the country, and gets over half of its operating budget from federal funds. Yet even with this support, the combined efforts of Catholic Charities and various other faith-based groups don’t even come close to meeting the demand of America’s impoverished, including the four out of 5 U.S. adults who struggle with joblessness, near-poverty, or relying on welfare for at least parts of their lives.
What’s more, Ribble’s willingness to shirk governmental responsibility echoed the sentiment of other Republican members at the hearing who looked down on the poor. In his opening statement, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) claimed that in America, “If you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead.” Ryan’s comments, combined with Ribble’s, invoked an old conservative stereotype of the lazy, unemployed welfare recipient, living off of government funding instead of working for her family’s wellbeing. Under their logic, those who receive welfare—or faith-based social justice charities that ask for government assistance—are just not working hard enough.
In reality, Ryan and Ribble’s image of the poor ignores the 68 percent of children receiving SNAP benefits who have working parents, as well as the 8.9 million Americans who work full time but still live below the poverty line.
Sister Simone rightly challenged this distorted image of the poor at the hearing, saying it was “a myth among the well paid.”
By undermining the work of progressive Catholics such as Campbell and blaming the poor for their own poverty, Ribble and Ryan dodged the real question on the table: How can millions of poor Americans provide for their families if Republicans succeed in cutting effective government programs like SNAP?