When a budget is not an economics exercise
By Fr. Fred Kammer, SJ
The drama of competing federal budgets and the ensuing game of “chicken” about who will shut down government is red meat for the pundits, the media, and ambitious politicians. But it ignores one basic truth: government budgets are not about economics; they are about fundamental morality. Over and over again Catholic teaching stresses the responsibility of government for the local, national, and global common good and the duty to protect and lift up the poor and vulnerable. Such moral duties and responsibilities are now on the line in Washington.
Many people may question how we can talk about morality when “we all know” that what is going on is just politics or doing what the voters want or what the lobbyists are well paid for?
Consider this not-imaginary scenario: a legislator helps to give a large tax refund or tax cut to the wealthiest of citizens. A few months later he or she has to pay for that tax break and does so by cutting food for the hungry or shelter for the homeless—any morality in that? Any sense that this is going on right now in Washington?
A budget is a moral document because it reflects our moral priorities. Repeatedly, our Catholic bishops have taken the position that one of the basic functions of government is to raise sufficient resources so that it can effectively work to “provide for the general welfare” and promote the common good, one of the most basic principles of Catholic social teaching. Government also must act to protect those who are poor and vulnerable, not to harm them. In an economic situation as fragile as the current one, this means in the concrete: a) insuring adequate revenues to meet overall needs; b) protecting the vulnerable; and c) in reducing deficits, taking a balanced approach that looks to all those programs and services of government that it provides to the public so that “we the people” share in reduced services or goods according to our means.
What is immoral in proposed budgets?
- Immoral is not raising revenues (yes, taxes) when we have spent years unwisely cutting taxes, especially for the wealthy, and incurring expenses and debts for which we have not assumed fiscal responsibility (for example, post-9/11 security structures, two wars, Medicare Part D, etc.). Perhaps Congress and the Obama Administration might come together around a National Defense and Security Tax Act to pay for two wars, their aftermath in veterans’ care, the Transportation Security Agency, and paying down their past due security bills comprising much of our massive deficit. By the way, our total tax burden—state, federal, and local—as a percentage of GDP is third lowest among 27 developed nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for which data is available (only higher than Turkey and Mexico). 1 And taxes have been going down for years.
- Immoral is cutting domestic programs targeted to people with low-or-no-incomes, those who are unemployed, the hungry, families who are homeless, and those needing medical care. Some specific immoral choices being proposed for our nation are:
- Cutting $1 billion to Community Health Centers that will deny health care to nearly ten million people who are poor and vulnerable;
- Cutting $2.3 billion from affordable housing programs at a very time when many families are losing their homes and many more others cannot find affordable housing; and
- Reducing job training programs by a proposed $1.75 billion in a time of high unemployment when laid off workers need new skills for a new economy. 2
- Immoral is cutting international poverty-focused development and humanitarian assistance to the world’s destitute, starving, and war-ravaged peoples. Surveys repeatedly reveal that Americans think our nation spends 10-15 percent of our budget on foreign aid to the poor and this is too high. So politicians pander to that mistaken belief. The reality is that we spend less than one percent of our budget on the world’s poor. (Our percentage is among the lowest of developed nations.) The budget passed last week by the U.S. House of Representatives would cut that by 50 percent! Those cuts would undermine our nation’s leadership position in the world, end programs for maternal and child health and fighting epidemics, severely reduce agriculture and food security, and threaten our ability to respond to natural and humanitarian disasters across the world.
- Immoral is cutting or freezing only domestic discretionary programs and some international discretionary programs while more than two-thirds of the federal budget goes untouched and the possibility of increasing revenues is taken off the table.
Yes, we have a national deficit problem which needs serious attention and widespread participation in its remedy. But, no thanks, not on the backs of those here or abroad who can least afford to pay the bill for the “goodies” of benefits and tax-cuts which we have all enjoyed. Finally, the deficit and debt is only one of our challenges as a nation, one which ranks behind the woes of millions of Americans without jobs and 43 million people living in poverty—the highest number in our fifty-one years of poverty estimates.
1. Bob McIntyre, United States Remains One of the Least Taxed Industrial Countries, Citizens for Tax Justice, November 11, 2010, p. 1.
2. Examples taken from February 14, 2011 letter to the members of the U.S. House of Representatives from Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of the Diocese of Stockton on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.