“I Call It The Poverty Trap”

In late June, Paul Ryan was talking to the American Manufactures’ Association for what was billed as a major tax speech. I was watching the Q&A afterwards on my laptop during lunch (I work alone, okay?) and the moderator solicited questions via Twitter and email. He planned to ask the Speaker selected questions ‘in real time’ off an iPad. Knowing exactly how unlikely a deluge of tweeted questions was, I put my fork down, shot mine over, and it slipped into the Q&A:

Does Government have a role in helping workers find dignity in their work, and if so, how can it accomplish that?

Now, this is a slow, fat, softball of a question. Ryan’s ostensibly an enthusiast of Catholic Social Teaching. So how did he answer?

Yeah, I think it does, because I think in many ways, government can un-dignify work in that it can penalize work. I call it the poverty trap. Right now, if you look at our war on poverty, the poverty rates that we have are about the same as when we started this War on Poverty thirty-one years ago. And you take a look at all these benefits, well-intended as they are, and you stack ’em up on top of each other, and they produce a big tax on work. They disincentive work. We have to remove these work disincentives, and switch them with a welfare reform that actually makes work pay.

The top tax rate payer in America isn’t actually that successful small business paying 44.6%. The top effective tax rate payer is a single mom, two kids, getting $24,000 in benefits, who will lose eighty cents on the dollar if she goes and takes a job. So we don’t want to create a poverty trap that discourages people going and taking that step forward in life. We want to make work always pay, and that is why we think we’re due for a new round of welfare reforms focused on getting people the skills they need, customizing benefits, and then tapering this benefit cutoff in such a way that it always pays to work.

So that’s why I think the dignity of work is so important, partly because we’ve got Boomers leaving. And we just need more people. The other reason is that we’ve just got these labor force participation rates that are back to 1978 levels. And so we’ve got to do absolutely everything we can to push, pull, prod, carrot, stick, whatever you want to call it, people to get into this workforce to get the skills they need so they have the dignified life that’s there for them, that they have the potential for, and I’d argue that our Federal policies are holding them back and we’ve got to clean that up.

Setting aside Ryan’s deft pivot into his welfare reform talking points, he’s essentially arguing that any work is dignified work and the government’s contribution to dignity is to get people working. Which is true, as far as it goes. We have an obligation to work. Unemployment is a moral issue and should be addressed by the State (Centesimus Annus #43).

The problem is that the State’s responsibility doesn’t end there.

According to Catholic Social Teaching, both international bodies and individual nations bear responsibility to ensure that workers are protected in serving both their direct and indirect employers (Laborem Exercens #17). In practical terms, the Federal government has either a primary or a partial responsibility to ensure that:

  • Just wages are paid — this means ensuring that a single ‘living wage’ is paid to a breadwinner that’s sufficient to cover an entire family’s needs, or that social assistance is provided to cover all the members of a family and provide for all their needs (Laborem Exercens #19)
  • Workers are allowed to rest from their work (Laborem Exercens #19)
  • Jobs continue to be created and are protected in times of crisis (Centesimus Annus #48)
  • Jobs do not detract from family life (Laborem Exercens #10; Charter of the Rights of the Family, Art 10)
  • Workers are able to form associations or trade unions (Rerum Novarum #11; Quadragesimo Anno #23; Sertum Laetitiae #31; Laborem Exercens #20; Centesimus Annus #9)

This is a casual list, not an exhaustive one. Each of these obligations are reflective of the individual worker’s dignity, which drives the subjective sense of work. “This subjectivity gives to work its particular dignity, which does not allow that it be considered a simple commodity or an impersonal element of the apparatus for productivity” (Laborem Exercens #6). So an appropriate understanding of the State’s role regarding individuals’ dignity should draw from the above list, but it should start with an understanding that man is the subject of work, and that human work matters not so much because of its productive output (Boomers are retiring!) but because of its subjective dimension.

I applaud Ryan for communicating the basest aspect: that all else being equal, it is better to work than not to work. Labor force participation is an obligation of justice. But the State has a far greater role to play than in moving people from welfare roll to payroll.