At a nationally televised town hall last week, Paul Ryan was asked how he upholds the Catholic Church’s teaching that we should help the poor. Ryan, a Catholic, answered that his emphasis on economic growth, upward mobility and opportunity for all is how, as House speaker, he puts that teaching into practice.
Not all Catholics liked this answer, with some criticizing Ryan’s support for “trickle-down economics” and arguing that a focus on economic growth doesn’t satisfy the church’s social teachings because policies that advance growth treat the poor as an afterthought.
It is always a good time to remind progressives that economic growth is the best anti-poverty program the world has ever seen. If you want to put a few hundred extra dollars in the pockets of the poor each month, then by all means redistribute that money from the rich. But it was economic growth, not income redistribution, that gave billions of people enough food to eat, moved children from squalor into classrooms, treated illness with antibiotics, and substantially reduced child mortality rates around the globe.
As recently as 1970, more than one-quarter of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, surviving on less than $1 a day. Three and a half decades later, only 1 in 20 people did — an 80 percent reduction. Poverty has continued to fall over the past decade. Income per head in India has doubled in the last 10 years. China has boomed. Africa is growing.
Economic growth has done this. The spread of the free-enterprise system has done this.
Yes, economic growth helps the rich, too. And conspicuous consumption is annoying. But if the price of having the rich show off their luxury cars and yachts is that billions of people are lifted out of poverty — well, that’s a price I’m very happy to pay.
Those who are expected to give special consideration to the poor, as Catholics like Ryan and me are called to do, should be the first to champion economic growth. Free enterprise is lifting the least among us as no government program ever could.
Of course, it is possible to extol the virtues of free enterprise in the developing world while arguing that a strong focus on growth in the U.S. does not meet our duty to the poor. But even this argument is a heavy lift. If the U.S. economy grows at 2 percent per year, it will take 35 years for income per person to double. If we grow at 1 percent per year, the doubling will take 70 years. At 3 percent growth, we’ll double in 24.
My point? Seemingly small changes in the aggregate growth rate have enormous effects on the nation’s standard of living. And it goes without saying that doubling our living standard in 24 years rather than 35 would significantly help the poor.
Important though it is, public policy should focus on more than the aggregate growth rate. Programs specifically targeted at the poor are needed. And Ryan, who clearly takes seriously his duty to the poor, has for years been a leader in pushing new anti-poverty policies. For example, his plan to increase the Earned Income Tax Credit — a key part of our safety net — is a very good one. (It’s also one that many progressives support.)
My point here is not to offer an unqualified defense of the speaker’s policies. Like some of those who criticized him after last week’s town hall, I have taken issue with the House GOP’s Obamacare replacement plan. I have criticized the plans that Ryan produced years ago as chairman of the House Budget Committee for cutting traditional anti-poverty programs like food stamps while not asking middle-class seniors to sacrifice. And there are aspects of the speaker’s current anti-poverty agenda that I would change.
But the implication that the speaker’s policies are incompatible with his faith takes things too far. Catholics are obligated to exercise judgment about how best to make manifest their special consideration of the poor. U.S. Catholic bishops offer guidance on specific proposals. While Catholics are asked to give weight to that guidance in forming their own views, it is properly thought of as a resource, not as a binding moral teaching.
This is a good arrangement for several reasons, not the least of which is that the Catholic faith is a faith much larger than politics.
Michael R. Strain is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is director of economic policy studies and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.