budgets and justice

The US government must concern itself with the plight of the underpriveleged people around the world. This doesn’t mean imposing our forms of government or creating “little Americas,” but it does mean giving other nations (as well as the poor in our own nation) a “hand up.” As the richest nation in the world, I believe it is our moral obligation. This is why I think the latest proposed US budget leaves much to be desired in this department.

I try not to get too political on this blog, but I’m all “fired up” about justice these days, and the following column outlines some of the inconsistencies in the 2007 budget.

The budget’s bottom line

by Yonce SheltonIn his State of the Union address last month, President Bush said, “Our greatness is not measured in power or luxuries, but by who we are and how we treat one another. So we strive to be a compassionate, decent, hopeful society,” one that “comes to the aid of fellow citizens in times of suffering and emergency.” He also pledged to “renew the defining moral commitments of this land.”

His fiscal year 2007 budget proposal, sent to Congress one week later, lacks the commitments needed to support this vision.

Budgets are moral documents. They show us what we value in revealing where we invest now and for the future. Government funding is not the solution to all needs, but the budget process is a road map for how leaders plan to navigate our country’s challenges and opportunities. The economic security of every family in this country is a moral opportunity and challenge. But our investment to strengthen families’ opportunities – and hope – is being sacrificed for luxuries for a few.

The president’s 2007 budget cuts $183 billion from domestic programs – leaving homeland security untouched – during the next five years. It eliminates more than 100 programs. Many of the cuts are to services for the poor. Spending for homeland security, the military, and the war in Iraq amounts to nearly $600 billion, while domestic cuts are proposed in all other areas of spending.

The budget makes the largest cut to federal education spending in a decade. Although President Bush proposed increased funding for math and science education, his signature education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act, has a cumulative funding shortfall of $55 billion. More cuts to low-income child care services would result in 400,000 fewer children receiving assistance. Despite Congress deciding not to cut food stamps in the 2006 budget (reacting, in part, to pressure from the faith community), food stamps are slated for a cut that would eliminate support for 300,000 people. Medicaid is again on the chopping block with nearly $14 billion in cuts. The list goes on.

These critical social supports hold families together and save lives. These cuts affect real people.

There is a disconnect between basic needs and national priorities when more social cuts are proposed as poverty has risen in each of the past four years, according to the U.S. Census; food insecurity has risen in each of the last five, according to the Food Research and Action Center; and 9.2 million working families are on the brink of poverty, according to the Working Poor Families Project. Fiscal responsibility arguments hold no water because the 2007 budget would increase the deficit (as in 2006). A major culprit is the budget’s $1.7 trillion (over 10 years) to permanently extend tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthy. This sacrifices basic supports for the vulnerable to provide extravagances for the well-off. And it calls into question the validity of the administration’s claims of steady deficit reduction over coming years.

But deficit concerns are about more than figures. We should be outraged that this approach lacks honesty and realism. This budget includes no analysis for spending for Iraq and Afghanistan past 2007, nor does it offer projections for expensive tax policies after 2006. This sidesteps customary budget practice. Ignoring these major expenses intentionally masks the impact of current tax and deficit policies on our long-term stability. We deserve better fiscal and moral accounting.

Despite claims that tax cuts stimulate the economy and help job growth, the current economic recovery has underperformed past recoveries and investment growth has been below historical norms, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Job creation under President Bush has been the lowest since World War II, and hourly and weekly wages are dropping, according to the American Progress Action Fund. Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, told The New York Times recently: “We should not be cutting taxes by borrowing…. We do not have the capability of having both productive tax cuts and large expenditures, and presume that the deficit doesn’t matter.”

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, years of rising poverty, and declining opportunity for more people constitute threats to our nation’s strength. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) called cuts to health and education programs “scandalous.” We cannot ignore these needs in the name of a defense-obsessed homeland security. Real security includes a vision for helping families realize the American dream. This demands compassion, not empty rhetoric. These budget priorities do not represent “defining moral commitments” or “aid of fellow citizens in times of suffering and emergency.”

An America of strength and security can also be an America of justice and compassion. People of faith must stand up for the least of these, but also increasingly for the average person and family. As Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress have told us, our “budgets are moral documents” message has not gone unheard.

We must build on last year’s successes in this battle for a moral budget. When national leaders do not offer a road map with a vision for the common good, we must put faith in action. We must use our voice and witness to redefine – to renew – the paths leading to moral commitment, hope, and greatness.

Yonce Shelton is national coordinator and policy director for Call to Renewal.
This column appeared at Sojo.net

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