A recent piece in The Washington Post by Lori Montgomery reports that conservative U.S. Congressman Paul Ryan has been working on solutions to poverty with Robert Woodson, solutions rooted in face-to-face compassion, spiritual transformation and neighborhood enterprise. The Post seems to want to praise Ryan (R. Wis.) for his interest in the poor, but to do so it first has to frame that interest as something foreign to conservatism:

Paul Ryan is ready to move beyond last year’s failed presidential campaign and the budget committee chairmanship that has defined him to embark on an ambitious new project: Steering Republicans away from the angry, nativist inclinations of the tea party movement and toward the more inclusive vision of his mentor, the late Jack Kemp.

The Post’s tendentious description of the tea party movement is contradicted by data laid out in Arthur Brooks’ Gross National Happiness, which shows that conservatives, on average, give a significantly higher percentage of their income to charitable causes than liberals do.

In its defense, the article does have a poster child for its misleading stereotype of conservatism — Paul Ryan’s 2012 presidential election running mate Mitt Romney, the multimillionaire caught on film writing off the bottom 47% of American earners as unreachable freeloaders who don’t pay any taxes. But what Romney has to do with your rank and file tea party conservative is never made clear in the article.

As for Ryan, his “new emphasis on social ills doesn’t imply that he’s willing to compromise with Democrats on spending more government money. His idea of a war on poverty so far relies heavily on promoting volunteerism and encouraging work through existing federal programs, including the tax code.”

Ryan is held up in the piece as a refreshing alternative to Romney, but the piece spins his efforts this way: “’They want to care,’ [Bruce] Bartlett said of Ryan and modern Republicans. ‘But they’re so imprisoned by their ideology that they can’t offer anything meaningful.’”

Bartlett isn’t given space in the article to explain what he meant by his comment, but the context of the short quotation leaves the impression that Ryan is prevented from proposing more “meaningful” strategies by his commitment to limited government.

The imprisoning ideology here is actually the Post’s, leading it to assume the only “meaningful” proposals for helping the poor are top-down government plans.

Ryan, for his part, is “imprisoned” by budgetary realities and the facts of economic history: the federal government is running up a monumental debt that threatens to create more poverty in the future, and the big government strategies for helping the poor over the past 50 years have been a disaster.

In the indispensable Christ and Apollo, the Catholic literary theorist William F. Lynch spoke of the tragic hero as being “cribbed, cabined, and confined” by a tragic situation that presses him toward a moment of insight and wisdom. I would suggest that the conservative Catholic Ryan and his conservative friend Bob Woodson are similarly “cribbed, cabined, and confined” by the lessons of history and Christian anthropology. This leads them to reject the failed utopian schemes of liberalism and to embrace the slower but real and enduring charitable strategies rooted in economic freedom, enterprise, and spiritual transformation.

To get a feel for this alternative vision of poverty fighting, see Session 3 of Acton’s Effective Stewardship DVD Series, where Woodson shares what he has learned from working with the urban poor.

  • http://flamingfundamentalist.blogspot.com/ Curt Day

    This is the problem with the conservative approach to fighting poverty. You blame the victim, you encourage volunteerism, and both are worthwhile. But you turn a blind eye to the system that creates poverty and you make helping a luxury which will be undertaken by those who can least afford to. Heaven forbid that we should question the system and hold the rich partially responsible for the suffering in the world.

  • Bill Hickman

    I think the conservative ideology Bartlett refers to includes the following:

    1) The belief that lower taxes and less government spending are extremely important and that higher taxes and higher spending unconservative.

    2) The belief that our current budget situation requires the federal government to spend significantly less money than it currently does.

    Since conservatives strongly believe #1 and #2, they currently oppose increases in government anti-poverty spending. They get criticized for this, so they often respond by arguing #3:

    3) Government spending makes poverty worse, not better, by giving people an incentive not to work, which they choose to take advantage of.

    I think conservatives should abandon #1 because it doesn’t make sense as a value judgment. I think #2 is empirically wrong. And I’m dismayed at how readily conservatives accept #3 because I think it’s empirically wrong and morally wrong, since it treats poverty and unemployment as a conscious choice, not a hardship. These three beliefs paint legislators like Paul Ryan into a corner – if he’s concerned about poverty, he can only suggest private anti-poverty efforts. Private efforts are great, but I think it’s self-evident that they’re not sufficient.