There's no form of benevolence as brutal as that which follows the familiar phrase "don't give anything to them; they'll just waste it all on drugs or alcohol." And while that kind of "tough love" is typically directed at homeless begging on the street, its self-serving logic permeates the ranks of government as well. Take, for instance, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who spoke at an awards dinner given by the Manhattan Institute on May 16. According to Ryan, the problem of poverty essentially zeroes down to "learned helplessness."
Ryan's assessment of the roots of poverty had all the hallmarks of the usual "dependency" argument, chalking up impoverished conditions to a deliberate decision made by poor people to rely upon government aid instead of seeking gainful employment.
"Millions of people," Ryan claimed, "have stopped looking for work." The solution Ryan suggests is not, of course, any kind of employment program — such as a job guarantee program, as a number of thinkers have suggested — but rather to simply remove benefits programs that supposedly allow poor people to avoid working.
In other words, the modifications Ryan has in mind are strictly behavioral. If you don't give a beggar money, the logic goes, then he won't be able to spend it on drugs or alcohol. This is precisely Ryan's logic, too: If government benefit programs are eliminated or slashed, then people who rely on them will be forced to seek some other source of income. This is presumably why his proposed budget features $137 billion in cuts to SNAP, a program aimed at providing food to needy families, more than 70 percent of which include children.
For Ryan, the only way to shift away from dependence on government assistance programs is to "embrace a virtuous cycle of hope and flourishing" that rightly habituates the poor to "attributes of friendship, accountability, and love." Notably this happens for Ryan only on the individual level, or as he puts it, "each person at a time, eye to eye, soul to soul."
It is of course not the case that poverty is a matter of diminished character. Though Ryan associated gang membership and drug abuse with poverty in his speech, it's more likely that those are effects rather than causes. Plus, it is not at all a stable relationship: Anyone who saw The Wolf of Wall Street knows drug abuse and reprehensible morals afflict the rich, too. But the curious thing about Ryan's theory of morality, in which friendship, accountability, and love are central, is that it stops at the individual.
After all, there's nothing friendly, loving, or accountable about the state reducing aid to the poor without even the remotest guarantee that they will be cared for. Ryan's focus on private alternatives places tremendous expectations upon business owners and wealthy individuals to take on the problem of poverty. Yet available data suggests that this is no replacement; the wealthiest Americans are far more interested in putting their excess dollars toward consumption than aid. When rich Americans give, they tend to give to universities and museums and ballets, all venues that serve their class. The poorest Americans give a greater portion of their income to charities that actually extend aid.
Ryan's suggestion that the rich must exhibit greater love sounds fine, but it relies on an unspoken second half: So that the government can offer less. This is especially bizarre coming from Ryan, a member of the government who has the power to shape the state into a more loving institution with full accountability to its poorest citizens. But because that could potentially require that wealthy people be taxed, Ryan demurs.
In that sense, Ryan's project of creating a more loving community rests on the cracked foundation of ensuring a diminished form of community, in which the government maintains no responsibility to its poorest citizens. In Ryan's world, there would be nothing remotely resembling a form of insurance for the poor, a net to catch those who slip through the vast cracks in our economy. In other words, his vision would ensure a community that has markedly deteriorated, with obligations and promises between individuals and institutions destroyed rather than strengthened or maintained.
I agree with Ryan that a culture of love, friendship, and accountability is the sort we want to cultivate, and that virtues like those arise in part out of modeling them. Yet it is difficult to imagine how the state shedding any sense of concern for the poor models a positive attitude toward cohesion, order, or the virtue of concern for the poor. On the contrary, the insistence that virtue belongs purely on the individual level only ensures that the most visible institutions in a society — including the state — will model nothing but apathy, creating the economies of exclusion that Pope Francis has repeatedly warned of.
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