U.S. Catholic bishops have joined an unprecedented coalition of American Christian leaders in an effort to protect social service, health and poverty-mitigation programs threatened by budget hawks in Congress. As discussions begin on a 2012 federal budget, deep cuts on discretionary social spending—child nutrition programs, education, foreign aid, housing and home heating assistance, and more, are already being proposed.
The campaign, “Circle of Protection,” joins Christian leaders from Catholic, evangelical and African American churches in a defense of the approximately 19 percent of the federal budget currently devoted to domestic social spending and the 1 percent directed toward international development and relief aid. "The Circle of Protection means if you come after the poor, you will have to come through us first," said Rev. Jim Wallis, president and CEO of the evangelical social justice organization Sojourners.
"Cutting the budget on the backs of the poor ... is simply not worthy of a great nation like ours," said the Rev. Barbara Williams-Skinner of the National African American Clergy Network.
During a press conference to introduce the campaign on April 27, Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., chairman of the bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, warned, “A just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons. It requires shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs fairly.”
Bishop Blaire said, “From across the spectrum of Christian commitment, we agree the moral measure of this budget debate is not which party wins or which powerful interests prevail, but rather how those who are jobless, hungry, homeless or poor are treated. Their voices are too often missing in these debates, but they have the most compelling moral claim on our consciences and our common resources.”
The bishop said every budget decision should be accessed by how much it protects human life and promotes human dignity and by how well it protects “the least of these.” He added, “Government and other institutions have a shared responsibility to promote the common good of all, especially ordinary workers and families who struggle to live in dignity in difficult economic times."
A plan for 2012 offered by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., already has been adopted by the House. It calls for reducing the tax rates for the top 2 percent of U.S. earners from 35 percent to 25 percent and compensating for the loss of revenues by cutting spending in domestic social services and international development programs. It also proposes a 10-year effort to change the way Medicare and Medicaid operate, turning the former into a voucher program and the latter into direct block grants to states.
Congressional Democrats have opposed the plan, saying it places the elderly and poor at too great a risk.
Bishop Blaire acknowledged that the coalition’s message, essentially suggesting that the segment of the budget that has become the most targeted for cuts should actually be the portion most protected from austerity measures, will be a hard sell to U.S. Christians who have grown weary of high taxes and fearful of out-of-control federal spending. “I think there is a lot of conversion work that needs to be done among our own people in the pews in terms of Catholic Social Teaching,” he said. He added the church needed to pay attention to the formation of Catholics but that individuals, too, had to take responsibility for their own discernment.
Rev. Wallis suggested that the group would support more attention to the cost efficiency and effectiveness of social programs, but he argued that a similarly sharp focus should be placed according to the same criteria on military spending and direct and indirect supports for U.S. corporations, particularly oil producers who have been experiencing record profits but still insist on federal subsidies. Noting that many foreign aid and anti-poverty programs were effective and low-cost, Rev. Wallis said, “A lot of these budget hawks are not really serious about cutting the deficit because if they were they’d go to where the real money is”—tax breaks for the affluent and military spending. Instead, “the poor are being sacrificed not to reduce the deficit, but to allow more room for tax breaks for America’s richest,” he said.
Galen Carey, Director of Government Affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, said that cutting the deficit and the needs of the nation’s poor are “wrongly thought to be in conflict.” The Christian leaders said that a long-term plan for closing the nation’s federal deficit and reducing its debt could coincide with measures to protect the poor, educate children, care for the disabled and assist those struggling with unemployment. “Despite the economic setbacks of the last few years,” said Rev. Williams-Skinner, “we continue to live in an age of abundance.”
“Things would be much worse if not for [the nation’s] modest safety net,” said Galen. Spending on health care and nutrition and on America’s children, he said, “help[s] all of us. They are an investment in our future.”
“We do face tough choices about our fiscal health,” said former Ambassador and Congress member Tony Hall, “and we owe to future generations to address [the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt].
“But the poor did not create this fiscal mess and hurting them is not the way out of it.” Hall is currently the executive director of the Alliance to End Hunger. He said even if the entire foreign aid budget were eliminated “it wouldn’t do anything to address the deficit, but it would hurt millions of people.” And for some, “it would kill them.”
Rev. Wallis complained that he had yet to see a line item reduction from the Pentagon budget but foreign aid programs that would save thousands of lives were already under the axe. “Military spending,” he said, “has to be on the table.” Rev. Wallis said the choices ahead will reveal what values the country holds highest. "We have to remember that budgets are not just about [financial] scarcity. They're about choices, moral choices. Our choices reveal ... what's important, what's not, who's important, who's not," he said.
For more on the U.S. Bishops and the budget, see: