Op-Ed: What the New Budget Means for Social Justice

The Bread for the World president on how Obama's budget will affect the poor.

These are hard times for hungry and poor people—and things are only going to get worse if lawmakers can’t come to an agreement on how to solve our nation’s budget crisis. The biggest threat to vulnerable people in the United States and around the world right now is sequestration, the far-reaching, automatic, across-the-board cuts triggered by Congress’s inability to reach a big deficit reduction deal before March 1, 2013. Because of this, defense and discretionary spending programs face $85 billion in cuts this year.

These cuts are not only detrimental to those experiencing hunger and poverty; they send a message that churches and charities must address these issues on their own. While the work of our nation’s Christian charities and justice missions is invaluable, the burden of caring for those in need will be too much for them to bear once the effects of these cuts are fully realized.

These cuts are not only detrimental to those experiencing hunger and poverty; they send a message that churches and charities must address these issues on their own.

Proverbs 13:23 tells us that “an unplowed field produces food for the poor, but injustice sweeps it away.” Today there are many people throughout the world who work their fingers to the bone, but still aren’t able to provide for themselves and their families. Ending hunger and poverty becomes an act of political will. As I see it, the challenge to lawmakers is to find a way to achieve bipartisan, long-term deficit reduction that replaces the sequester while also protecting poor and vulnerable populations. This will require a balanced approach that includes revenues and responsible spending cuts. It will also requires a compromise—something that has thus far eluded Congress. If lawmakers fail to take action in the next few months, the harmful effects of sequestration will likely become permanent.

One thing is certain—sequestration’s impact is real. And there's much at stake. Domestically, some counties have discontinued Head Start services, while others are holding lotteries to determine which children will lose their slots in the program. There have been cuts to housing programs, and certain medical services are being reduced or eliminated. According to the Coalition on Human Needs, West Michigan Meals on Wheels could lose upwards of $50,000 due to sequestration, impacting the delivery about 12,000 meals to vulnerable people in the surrounding area, to cite just one example. The fact that there isn’t more of a public outcry is alarming.

Unemployment remains high, but unemployment benefits nationwide will be cut by more than 10 percent in many states. Low-income pregnant women are at risk of losing access to prenatal care, and infants and children could lose vital nutrition.

Overseas, millions are losing access to international food aid and poverty-focused development assistance (PFDA), which helps people in developing countries lift themselves out of poverty. These realities are unacceptable.

Congress is considering several budget proposals, all of which would affect sequestration. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and President Barack Obama have recently put forth budgets for fiscal year 2014.

Rep. Ryan’s budget emphasizes reducing the “dependency” of poor people on federal anti-poverty programs. The plan acknowledges the need for a safety net, but focuses on ensuring that assistance is temporary. The proposal allows sequestration to continue and makes additional cuts to programs serving hungry and poor people.

God’s grace in Jesus Christ compels us to help our neighbors, whether they live next door or an ocean away.

By contrast, Sen. Murray’s budget proposal maintains that deficit reduction must not increase poverty. It protects the most vulnerable families and replaces scheduled sequestration cuts with an alternative deficit-reduction course. The proposal increases funding for programs such as PFDA by 22 percent over 10 years.

Similarly, President Obama’s budget reflects a serious attempt at compromise by balancing tough spending cuts with additional revenue. It adheres to the principle that deficit reduction must not increase poverty, and includes a section on “building ladders of opportunity.” It also features important reforms to the international food aid system, which would allow for greater flexibility and efficiency.

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Both President Obama’s and Sen. Murray’s budgets replace sequestration with a mix of tax increases and spending cuts. While all three proposals cut yearly appropriated spending (25 percent of which goes to low-income people through Women, Infants and Children (WIC), PFDA, Head Start, and similar programs), Sen. Murray’s and President Obama’s respective plans offer far fewer cuts than Rep. Ryan’s proposal.

We must recognize that these are not partisan issues. God’s grace in Jesus Christ compels us to help our neighbors, whether they live next door or an ocean away. Churches, charities, and Christian justice missions work wonders in helping to quell the impact of hunger and poverty, but they can’t do it alone. If our government’s policies threaten to put more people at risk of going hungry or falling into poverty, we must speak against this injustice by lifting our voices and holding lawmakers accountable. In John chapter 6, Jesus turned five loaves of bread and two little fish into enough food to feed thousands. God sees abundance in the world that makes hunger and poverty wholly unacceptable.

Addressing issues of hunger and poverty is not a question of who does it best. Our government has the resources to fund care for the underserved and religious groups have the conviction. Religious organizations and people of faith have a powerful collective voice that can be used to speak against injustice, but the burden of addressing these issues is not solely theirs to bear.

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