A Faithful Federal Budget: What Does it Look Like and Why Does it Matter? – by Leslie Woods

Read John Hill’s Essay, “Challenging the False Notion of Scarcity”
Read Edith Rasell’s Essay, “The Federal Budget Deficit”
Read Amelia Kegan’s Essay, “Tax Reform: The Next Big Thing in the Federal Budget Debates”

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

– Matthew 6:21

I am certainly not the first to argue that a budget is a “moral document” and I trust I will not be the last.  A budget is a statement of values.  And it stands to reason that, as the Gospel of Matthew teaches, the reverse will also be true – our hearts will be where our treasure is, but we will choose to put our treasure where our hearts already dwell.  This is why a budget is a moral document and why we, as people of faith, should care about our federal budget.

Budgets matter.  They matter because they show shared priorities.  As clearly as my personal budget shows whether I prefer to eat out or to go shopping, our federal budget provides a glimpse into the psyche of our nation. Do we choose promotion of the general welfare or protection of private profits?  Do we choose to reduce inequality or to shield the wealthy from a contribution commensurate with their wealth? Do we choose to fund international humanitarian aid or outdated weapons systems and the machinery of war? Do we invest in our children? Do we care for our elders? Do we protect the environment? Do we build peace and human security around the world?  Our budget answers these questions – and many more.

Recent years in Washington, DC, have seen an increased focus on the fiscal issues, even as conversations fall into stalemate and other policy priorities languish.  The deficit and the national debt (which are not synonymous with the budget) have sucked all the oxygen out of what should be a collaborative legislative process, instead providing fodder for politically divisive struggles that allow Members of Congress to line up squarely on opposite sides of an ideological divide.  Indeed, the deficit and debt have come to dominate all political conversations, to the detriment of a healthy dialogue about our budget priorities, or anything else, for that matter.

The federal deficit is not this nation’s most pressing problem. While it is a long-term problem that needs a long-term solution, more urgent are the problems of rising inequality, economic injustice, contempt for the common good, and a startling lack of civility that allows us to demonize the “other” while avoiding responsibility for our collective sins and our complicity in our unjust systems.  Indeed, much more important than the fiscal deficit is our human deficit, where need, hunger, and insecurity result from our lack of investment in people and the community structures that keep people safe, healthy, and happy.

And as we repent, and struggle with what we can do to break through the partisan gridlock that plagues the system that should be providing governance, we turn to the only obvious place – our understanding of community, our responsibility to each other, and our hope for the future.  In short, we turn to our faith.

Last spring, the interfaith advocacy community released Priorities for a Faithful Budget: Acting with Mercy and Justice as One Nation Under God. In that document, we set forward principles for a faithful budget that are deeply rooted in our theological understanding of who we are and how God calls us to be in relationship with one another.  As a member of the writing team, I recall a thoughtful and collaborative process that sought to include many voices and choose words carefully.  So, rather than trying to restate imperfectly what we carefully wrote a year ago, sections of the Faithful Budget are below excerpted with permission.

Beginning with our understanding of a call to be “repairers of the breach,” the Faithful Budget’s preamble includes this analysis:

In the current political and economic climate, neither party is giving voice to the needs of the families who are struggling to overcome poverty. It is simply not true that we must reduce assistance for the poorest among us in order to achieve fiscal recovery. A Faithful Federal Budget can advance fiscal responsibility while increasing support for the poor and vulnerable, by focusing on job creation and economic revitalization, an equitable tax system based on fairness, and true human security over disproportionate military spending.

The way to national recovery is not to close our hearts to the poor, but to heed the words of the Prophet Isaiah who assures us, “[I]f you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday… you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in”(58:10-12).

Principles of a Faithful Federal Budget

Restoring Economic Opportunity: The opportunity to work hard and improve one’s economic condition is a value that defines this nation. But it is a reality increasingly available only to those who are already wealthy. We believe in the inherent worth of every individual and that God intends dignity, health, and wholeness for each person. We need an economy that empowers workers to self sufficiency and provides pathways out of poverty. The principles of “liberty and justice for all”, as enshrined in our Pledge of Allegiance, seem hollow in light of the pace at which wealth and opportunity have shifted from the many to the few. We believe that everyone deserves equal opportunity and must therefore have equal access to the building blocks for success. We urge Congress to make the long-term investments needed to sustain the United States’ economic renewal, create economic opportunity for all, and work toward ending poverty. This requires investments in high-quality, affordable education, sustainable jobs with living wages, and policies that help families to build assets.

Ensuring Adequate Resources for Shared Priorities: From the time a federal income tax was established, the concept of a progressive tax system, based on the ability to pay, has been widely accepted as fair and equitable. Over the last several decades our tax system has grown less progressive, and now frequently places a greater tax burden, as a percentage of income, on the middle class than it does on the wealthiest among us. The tax system also creates financial incentives for individuals to act in ways that are thought to strengthen our social fabric, such as investing and saving for retirement, starting a business, owning a home, getting a college education – even charitable giving. Because of the way tax benefits are structured, however, too often low-wage workers do not earn enough to access those benefits. This results in a system that perpetuates inequality by rewarding behavior that generates financial security for those who already have it, while excluding those who are working hard at low-wage jobs and need help the most. An equitable, moral tax code should reward the efforts of low-income people to work and save at every level. A Faithful Budget will act to correct this imbalance. Investment in the renewal of our nation’s economic well-being and protecting the poor and vulnerable will itself serve to reduce the long-term deficit. Such investment should be financed through an equitable tax system founded on fairness, where those who have reaped extraordinary benefits contribute proportionately to the good of all.

Prioritizing True Human Security: With well over half of the discretionary budget dedicated to military spending, the United States is unable to invest in other areas that build substantial human security in our communities. Global threats to peace and security need not instill a national inclination to make an imbalanced investment in new weapons systems, detention centers, and militarized border walls, leading to disproportionate spending on the mechanisms of war and enforcement, while we become less secure in so many other ways. We believe a faithful budget must reevaluate these priorities, increase investment in the areas of health, education, and community well-being that are essential to true security. Our budget priorities should reflect a more balanced approach to the full spectrum of investments that build meaningful security for individuals, families, and communities.

Accepting Intergenerational Responsibility: We cannot leave our children a legacy of debt, but neither must we leave them a legacy of rising poverty and growing inequality. As educational programs, adequate housing, health care, nutrition programs, job training, and other community services all fall victim to pressures to reduce the deficit, economic vulnerability continues to grow and more families find themselves one disaster away from poverty. Our nation’s vital social safety net did not create the deficit, and the vulnerable populations served by the social safety net should not bear the brunt of deficit-reduction measures. A Faithful Budget will seek wise and far-sighted ways to reduce the nation’s long-term deficits while protecting the most vulnerable among us.

Recognizing a Robust Role for Government: We are inspired by a common conviction that God has called on all of us – as individuals, as communities of faith, and as a society acting together through our government – to protect the vulnerable and promote the dignity of all people. For this reason the faith community has worked alongside the United States government for decades to protect those struggling to overcome poverty in the U.S. and abroad. People who need help paying rent or feeding their children come to us, frequently as a first and last resort, and we do all we can to provide the aid that compassionate love demands. And yet, faith communities and agencies cannot do it alone. The need is great as many who once gave to our ministries of mercy are now recipients of our charity. We need the government’s continued partnership to combat poverty by providing a truly adequate short-term safety net, and by means of policies that serve to prevent poverty, reduce extreme inequality, restore economic opportunity for all, and rebuild a robust middle class.

The Call

As faith communities and Americans of conscience we stand with those whose need is great and we call on all of us to act together, as the American people, with mercy and justice, and to re-arrange our national priorities to focus on the common good. Accordingly, this Faithful Budget boldly proclaims the aspirational goals toward which, we believe, our nation must strive…

Let us embrace a call to live together in community, not agreeing on everything, but sharing in the common purpose of bettering our nation, protecting our brothers and sisters here in the U.S. and around the world, and sustainably caring for our environment. We call on Congress and the Administration to craft a federal budget that protects the common good, values each individual and his or her livelihood, and helps lift the burden on the poor, rather than increasing it while shielding the wealthiest from any additional sacrifice.

In addition, the principles also included “Meeting Immediate Need,” “Using the Gifts of Creation Sustainably and Responsibly,” and “Providing Access to Health Care for All.”  To see the complete Faithful Budget, including those principles not excerpted above, visit the Faithful Budget Campaign.

These principles lay out what many members of the interfaith advocacy community sees as the necessary components of a Faithful Budget.  And they are essential to seeing our national community move ahead of the partisan mire in which we are bogged down.

Compassion. Mercy. Peace. Justice.

These are the shared priorities that unite us and that should be reflected in a document that shows where we choose to put our treasure.

Leslie Woods serves as the Representative for Domestic Poverty & Environmental Issues in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness. She is also co-chair of the Interreligious Working Group on Domestic Human Needs.  She can be reached at leslie [dot] woods [at] pcusa [dot] org.  “Priorities for a Faithful Budget” was submitted to the United States Congress on March 22, 2012.  To learn more about the Faithful Budget Campaign, visit their website.

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