Sister Simone Defends the Safety Net

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Sister Simone Campbell, head of the Catholic social justice lobbying organization NETWORK — and a leader of the “Nuns on the Bus” tours — testified before Congress yesterday at a hearing on poverty in America.

The hearing, “The War on Poverty: A Progress Report,” was organized by the House of Representatives Committee on the Budget, headed by Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI). In his opening remarks, Ryan laid out his reasons for calling the hearing. “Forty-nine years ago, Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty,” he said. “Well, since then, we’ve spent $15 trillion on that war. So what do we have to show for it? Today, 46 million Americans are living in poverty. […]The fact is, we’re losing this War on Poverty, and we need to know why.”

On trial in the hearing was the effectiveness of social safety net programs, which Ryan described as redundant, layered upon one another like a “sedimentary rock,” and often unnecessary. “Some programs displace the efforts of local communities to help families in need,” he said. “Government should not displace these efforts, it should support them.”

As the leader of an organization that for 41 years has endeavored to help the working poor, Sister Campbell represented one such non-governmental organization. But the government programs, she said, were indispensable in her work.

“The Census Bureau’s supplemental poverty measure and my daily experiences tell us that every day in America, supports such as the EITC, SNAP and Medicaid are making critical differences in the lives of low-income families, particularly children,” she testified. “The safety net does lift millions of people out of poverty — in fact, in 2011, government benefits lifted a total of 40 million people out of poverty.”

Watch her full testimony, here:

Campbell came under fire from some conservatives, including Rep. Reid Ribble (R-WI), who joked that he was excited to challenge a nun after years of Catholic school. He demanded, “What is the church doing wrong that they have to come to the government to get so much help?”

Campbell replied, “Justice comes before charity… Everyone has a right to eat, and therefore there is a governmental responsibility to ensure everyone’s capacity to eat. Love and care makes a difference, but the issues are so big there isn’t sufficient charitable dollars there.”

For more on Sister Simone’s thoughts on poverty, watch her interview with Bill on Moyers & Company from last year.

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