April 17, 2015

Be Our Guest / Rep. Todd Rokita

Our moral obligation is to lift people out of poverty, congressman says

The March 27, 2015, article in The Criterion, “Catholic advocates push Congress for budget that protects poor people,” alleges that potential reductions to some social service programs demonstrate a failure to make the needs of the poor and vulnerable people a priority. These sentiments are misguided.

Why are Christians coming to government to do what we are called to do as individuals under the Gospel of Jesus Christ? I challenge the assertions of the religious sisters that more government programs and more money spent on them are better for the poor. Rather, a system that lifts people out of poverty instead of perpetuating a permanently poor citizenry is needed.

It was President Lyndon B. Johnson that first declared a “War on Poverty” in 1964, stating our national goal to “not only relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.”

Fifty years and $21.5 trillion later, the poverty rate has only fallen 2.3 percent, from 17.3 to 15 percent. Today about 22 percent of children and 46 million Americans live in households near or below the poverty line. The federal government now administers at least 92 federal programs designed to help lower-income Americans, including dozens of education and job training programs, 17 different food aid programs, and more than 20 separate housing programs. It is clear that the approach of simply throwing money at more programs is not working. If insanity can indeed be defined as doing the same thing over and over expecting different results, then it may be past time to try something different.

Rather than the failed approach offered by the subjects of the article, the budget proposed by the Republicans in Congress offers a different approach to the age-old problem of poverty. It proposes to reform federal programs so they can continue to serve the poor, while empowering them to find work and incentivizing Church and other groups to help people lift themselves out of poverty. If we continue down the path we’re on, these vital safety programs will go bankrupt and cease providing any services at all.

Even President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, arguably the father of modern-day social welfare programs, stated repeatedly that the federal government must be the last resort in providing for social needs, and that government intervention should be employed only after the family, churches and local charity programs have done all they could for an individual.

In words that may now seem prescient, Roosevelt warned, “of human needs, we can’t expect ‘the government will take care of it.’ ” He added that relief is the primary responsibility of the family and citizens of that community, through the churches and the community chest of social and charitable organizations of the community.

With FDR’s admonition in mind, we have crafted a budget that balances in 10 years—meaning a healthier economy today and greater economic opportunity for tomorrow.

Rather than ignoring the needs of the poor, as was suggested in the article, the House Republicans offered an alternative plan to reform these programs for the long term. Our budget speaks to the dignity of work and transitioning people away from public assistance

As noted in the article, “the budget is a moral document.” Many believe it is immoral to hand every child born today a bill for $50,000 to pay the debt left them by this generation, a debt that will increase the likelihood of living in poverty. I fail to see how the immoral status quo of spending money we don’t have follows the Gospel.

What does follow the Gospel is helping someone realize the dignity of work and earning one’s success, rather than forcing the dependency on failed government programs and bureaucracies.

(Rep. Todd Rokita represents Indiana’s fourth congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is a member of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg.)

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