Hearing Poverty

July 31, 2013

Today I attended a House Budget Committee hearing on "The War on Poverty: A Progress Report." The hearing hits a hot topic that currently splits the two parties on strong ideological lines. Three of the four panelists testifying generally backed the Republican philosophy: Eloise Anderson, Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families; Jon Baron, President of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy; and Douglas Besharov, Professor of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. The other witness offered a different perspective in favor of government anti-poverty initiatives: Simone Campbell, Executive Director of the Catholic lobbying group NETWORK (the first photo is one I took of Campbell testifying). Campbell's group is best known for its "Nuns on the Bus" tours to bring attention last year to budget and poverty issues and again this year to immigration reform (see post here). Chairing the House Budget Committee and therefore presiding over this hearing is Republican Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. As the Republican Vice Presidential candidate last year and the architect of the Republican budget vision (and a Catholic), Ryan particularly drew criticism from Campbell and others (see posts here and here). Thus, I was curious to see both the mix of religion and politics in the hearing as well as the potential showdown between Ryan and Campbell. That Catholic debate over poverty policy never occurred. In fact, Ryan actually came to Campbell's defense at one point. Ryan seemed to ignore much of Campbell's presentation (except the end when she had stories and photos of three individuals to personalize her arguments), and Ryan did not ask Campbell any questions during his allotted time. Later in the hearing, Republican Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee harshly suggested Campbell's opinion should not be considered as legitimately Catholic and questioned if she actually represented the Vatican or the Catholic position on poverty matters. Before Campbell could answer, Ryan joined the discussion to defend Campbell's comments during the hearing as fully within the Catholic Church's teachings. And with that, the hearing moved on to another congressperson for questions. Although the room started out packed with people standing throughout the aisles, most had left by the time Ryan offered his defense of Campbell (and articles thus far published on the hearing clearly were filed by reporters who left early).

As the Blackburn-Ryan exchange demonstrated, faith permeated the hearing, which is apparently what happens when there is a nun on the panel (the second photo is one I took of Ryan during the hearing). Republican Representative Tom Price of Georgia called poverty a "moral" issue, while Democratic Representative Bill Pascrell of New Jersey denounced "immoral" efforts to cut poverty programs. Republican Representative Scott Garrett of New Jersey invoked the biblical teaching to care for "the least of these" and rambled trying to connect the hearing's topic to God telling Adam to work in Genesis 2. Democratic Representative Hakeem Jeffries also mentioned "the least of these." Republican Representative Reid Ribble of Wisconsin and Republican Representative Rob Woodall of Georgia both argued that anti-poverty programs should be the work of churches alone and not the government (although Campbell explained that churches do not have the resources to pick up the tab). Democratic Representative Jim McDermott confessed that Jesus is his Lord and noted that he graduated from Wheaton College (and name-checked fellow alum Billy Graham) to claim credibility on the topic. He then quoted Jesus on welcoming children to justify programs that help poor children. Representative James Lankford of Oklahoma invoked the parable of the "good Samaritan" as he critiqued government anti-poverty programs that merely throw money at someone. Democratic Representative Barbara Lee noted her Catholic education, and Blackburn mentioned she had taught Sunday School earlier this week. Despite all of these faith references to justify both sides of the debate, no one seemed converted by the discussion. It will be interesting to see how this debate progresses and the role Ryan plays in the future.


UPDATE [8-1-2013]: Here is a video of part of Ryan's defense of Campbell (I did not catch the first part).

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