Dear Paul Ryan: an open letter

Dear Rep. Ryan,

By now, you may have noticed that you are the focus of a little project by Catholic sisters in this country who are concerned about the devastating effects of proposed cuts to the federal budget. In particular, many of us are seriously worried about potential cuts to human-needs programs that will harm the most vulnerable members of our society.

I know you already received an in-person, not to mention televised, message from Sinsinawa Dominican Sr. Erica Jordan. I don't know Sister Erica personally, but I thought she did a pretty good job of framing the critical moral questions we need you and your colleagues in Congress to grapple with around the budget.

Ultimately, if we are to be a government of, for, and by the people, then we need to take into account not just numbers, but the real lives of people. Furthermore, for those of us for whom our Catholic faith provides a moral compass, we know that Jesus challenges us to have a particular concern for those who are living in poverty and struggling to provide for their families in our harsh economic reality.

Sister Erica, of course, spoke to you as one Catholic to another. Over the years, you have been vocal about your faith. I remember clearly being impacted by your response to the address of Pope Francis to Congress. It was so very genuine.

"He's been calling for a dialogue and talking about very important principles about the dignity of every human person and how we need to attend to this," you said then. You also cautioned against politicizing the pope's message. "If a person tries to politicize this speech for some issue or partisan gain, that diminishes from the message itself."

Everything gets politicized these days, doesn't it? Politicized and polarized. If you think about it, our entire lifetimes (I'm about two years younger than you, according to your Wikipedia profile) have been a time of hyperpolarization, leading to the current gridlock in Washington and a decided lack of helpful discourse and debate in the public sphere, let alone dialogue!

I am heartened that you value Pope Francis' call to dialogue. I also hope that if and when you read this letter, it will be received in the spirit with which it is intended — namely, dialogue.

In your conversation with Sister Erica on CNN, you shared your appreciation for the model of Catholic organizations that help the poor. You expressed that they do a "fantastic job in spite of government doing wraparound benefits for the poor to make sure that they get to where they are — from where they are to where they need to be."

My religious congregation, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, sponsors and supports nonprofit services for low-income women in Jersey City, New Jersey, and Seattle with a similar model. Both the York Street Project and Jubilee Women's Center provide such wraparound services, treat the whole person, and assist the women they serve on their journey to self-sufficiency.

I found it interesting that you referenced the year 1985 in your response to Sister Erica, because that is around the time my sisters started both these innovative programs.

I agree with you that we need to encourage and support such programs, but as partners with government, not replacements for our civic duty to promote the general welfare. Such programs do not do a fantastic job in spite of government, but in tandem with life-giving government programs like the Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), which are in jeopardy in the budget proposals under consideration. At the York Street Project, for example, CDBG funds support the job readiness program at Kenmare High School, helping women who previously dropped out of the public school system to find jobs that will support their families.

You also told Sister Erica that we need to look at how we measure success in anti-poverty programs, shifting focus from dollars spent to outcomes.

"Is it working?" you asked. "Are people getting out of poverty?"

I agree that these are the key questions, but helping people get out of poverty requires an investment, not budget cuts. Program effectiveness is not free.

The women who come to Jubilee Women's Center and York Street Project are motivated to break the cycle of poverty, as are the dedicated staff who journey with them. Yet the path from homelessness to stable housing is not an easy one. It is also complicated by real-life factors. Fifty-three percent of the women at Jubilee are survivors of domestic violence; 49 percent are coping with mental health challenges; 28 percent have physical health challenges; and 17 percent are in recovery from substance abuse. Knowing all this is one thing, but actually meeting the residents and hearing their stories of resilience is powerful.

At the same time, their resilience and our programs are not enough. Our creative and persistent staff navigate a patchwork of constantly changing government programs to help the women find stable permanent housing, including housing and urban development funds for rental assistance and the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, which helps working moms keep the lights on with a minimum-wage job. To be honest, we need more funding, not less, to reach the outcomes you name.

Take the example of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). These are not just alphabet soup, but federal programs that add up to real soup for hungry kids and their parents.

When I visited St. Joseph's Home at York Street, I saw the kitchen where staff help mothers learn how to cook homemade meals for their little ones with ingredients that make these dollars stretch to cover the whole month. This is no easy task on already-limited funds, and the proposed federal budget decreases this life-supporting funding.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the drift. And in any case, you will be receiving hundreds, if not thousands, more letters from Catholic sisters sharing real-life stories like these.

Please, Speaker Ryan, take these messages to heart. Consider them part of an ongoing dialogue, one that seeks to break through the partisan bickering and polarized debate and find common ground to serve the common good. I implore you to help craft a federal budget that attends both to the general welfare of our nation, but also the particular needs of the most vulnerable families in our country.

[Susan Rose Francois is a member of the Congregation Leadership Team for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. She was a Bernardin scholar at Catholic Theological Union and has ministered as a justice educator and advocate. Read more of her work on her blog, At the Corner of Susan and St. Joseph.]

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