- - Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The reason that poverty is such an important issue to me is that, the way I see it, it is more than an economic issue. It is a moral issue. And I think there are millions of people of faith who agree with me.

There’s a common thread running through both the Christian and Jewish traditions. And that’s the belief in human dignity. It’s the belief that people aren’t just a factor of production — they aren’t just a means to an end. They are the end. Their happiness is the center, the focus, the very purpose of our lives. And everything we do — every law we pass, every transaction we make — should enhance human dignity.

And the dignity of the individual rests in large part on the dignity of work. It goes all the way back to creation. The Bible says God made man “and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it.” Even before the fall — even before God had told us, “By the sweat of your brow, you shall eat bread” — God wanted us to work. Paradise is not a beachfront resort. And we are something more than tourists. We are, in the rabbinic teaching, “partners with God in the work of creation.”

So while poverty has an economic effect, it also has a moral effect. When you cannot work, you can’t fulfill your God-given purpose. You can’t make use of your God-given talents. A healthy economy is large and expanding, yes. It’s also inclusive. It allows every person to reach their full potential — to participate fully in our national life. And public policy should promote this culture of participation.

The question is, how? In Catholic social teaching, there are two key principles: solidarity and subsidiarity. Solidarity is a shared commitment to the common good. It’s the belief that we’re all in this together, and we don’t let anybody slip through the cracks. Subsidiarity, meanwhile, is a prudent deference to the people closest to the problem. When there’s hardship, we first look to the people in the local community to solve it. And only if they can’t solve the problem on their own do we ask a broader authority to step in. And even then, government must work with the people in the community, not against them.

The idea is not that this is the more efficient way or the more practical way — though it very often is. (And sometimes it isn’t.) The idea is that this is the most personal way, the most humane way — and therefore the best way — to solve our problems. By keeping power close to people in need, you give them a chance to take part — to come up with their own solution, not just to follow someone else’s master plan.

These two principles work together. They reinforce each other. They both recognize the inherent worth of every person. And they both empower people to make use of their God-given talents. To use a sports metaphor, solidarity is the team spirit, and subsidiarity is the game plan.

But there’s another point of agreement between these traditions. We believe there’s a limit to human ambition. Six days a week, we’re supposed to make the most of our talents — to create and build and grow. But God commanded us to rest on the seventh day — to stop working, to stop building, to stop all the hustle and bustle. That’s because we’re supposed to take time to reflect — to remember that all we have is ultimately a gift from God. And so the proper attitude toward life isn’t pride. It’s gratitude.

That’s the kind of attitude I think we should take toward all public policy — but especially the fight against poverty. Every person in our country is a gift from God, and we should treat them that way.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, has served in Congress since 1999.

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