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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.

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.

20 Comments

Rolland Jackson

6

Rolland Jackson commented…

I agree with the other commenters. Taking care of the poor and needy is the Church's responsibility, however if the government wants to make spending cuts they should consider cutting the military budget first. They are feeding the people in one country with our money and killing the people in the other with the same money, so in that way I agree that poverty relief should be the last thing cut.

Karen Kipper

18

Karen Kipper replied to Rolland Jackson's comment

I agree with you 100%. As a nation our priorities are clear. That is why we are dealing with the sequester right now. I'm not sure where the author of this article thinks the money is going to come from.

JonandIvy Jones

9

JonandIvy Jones commented…

This could be a huge opportunity for the church to be great once more. Just think, if all of the thousands, or tens of thousands of churches out there would take care of their poor and hungry, there would be no more needy in this country, and the church would have a whole new face on her. Just think of the possibilities!

Chris VanDyke

8

Chris VanDyke replied to JonandIvy Jones's comment

Hmmm...'moving mountains' maybe? I think I've heard of this somewhere before :)

Jeremy

3

Jeremy commented…

I am a bit surprised by the comments here. Of course the Bible says it's the Church's responsibility to care for the poor. The poor are always with us. How many churches actually do anything impactful with their charity work? Something beyond a turkey at Thanksgiving, a bike at Christmas, and a puppet show in Mexico during the youth retreat?

I live in the South and there is a church every ten miles. We're still one of the poorest states in the country any way you slice it. My family worked years for a church that was six figures in debt by the time we parted ways. It would be beyond wonderful if churches picked up the slack and no one needed long-term government assistance, but saying "Man, that would be so great!" is just vibrations in the air and comes off insulting to people who have no where else to turn.

I don't mean any disrespect, nor am I angry at anyone. I've simply heard the argument that it's the church's responsibility to help the poor for ages, but have yet to see anyone detail how we should do it.

JonandIvy Jones

9

JonandIvy Jones replied to Jeremy's comment

That's what I'm saying Jeremy, there are so many "churches" that are not even churches at all, they are a drain on the body of Christ. But this kind of thing would put a fire under the church, and those churches that are a drain would either put up or get out. There are literally thousands of "junk churches" that aren't doing anything except draining the resources of the kingdom. The church needs to stand up and be the church, and that means taking care of the poor, and needy, and helpless, and homeless.

Jeremy

3

Jeremy replied to JonandIvy Jones's comment

And what I'm saying is that why is this somehow different from the arguably hundreds of years the church has failed? Churches will "put up or get out"? Of what? Junk churches are suddenly going to feel guilty and either turn themselves around or just disband? Again, I don't disagree with the sentiment, but I'm not seeing reality in it.

Evan Davies

15

Evan Davies replied to Jeremy's comment

Yeah I agree with you Jeremy. It would be tremendous if the church would really get involved but if the staggering poverty number in the US and abroad are not putting a charge into churches, I don't know what will. On the other side, I am constantly searching for that catalyst. The church i attend is always looking to partner on the big projects we have undertaken.

Thomas S Flowers III

1

Thomas S Flowers III replied to Evan Davies's comment

I agree with you as well Jeremy. I'm finding all these comments surprising; obviously the voice of the Body is more fractured than one would expect. When folks tell me we no longer need these governmental social justice programs it typically reveals to me that they have no clue of their historic need, or why they were first created. Do we think that during the Great Depression that churches did nothing? They did, and more so, but were also overwhelmed. Our government is representational, representing our collective voice. Do these programs in question require change, sure, every program needs to be reformed every now and then, but to cut their budgets will just led to disastrous effects.

tamaraverdon

5

tamaraverdon replied to Thomas S Flowers III's comment

Absolutely agree with Jeremy and Thomas... I think it's notable that most of the voices here have an either/or perspective. That it's the government's responsibility OR the church's responsibility. It's both. Caring for the poor isn't just charitable. It's good economics. Giving people affordable health care isn't just humane. It builds a safer and healthier society. Just because we haven't fine-tuned these ideas, doesn't mean we should abandon them. (We've abused our military spending, but we aren't disbanding our forces...)

tyson reuer

1

tyson reuer commented…

This article read like a press release from the White House. I believe the writer is sincere and I commend you for that and all the work you do. I believe in charity and giving to the poor and I believe government and churches and businesses all participating in that. I also believe however in doing more than just giving. I believe we must have a vision for how to create wealth and create opportunity and abunsance. Another crucial way the government can help the poor is by helping the economy with responsible spending cuts and when they do not do that for years and years things like sequestration become an unfortunate outcome. One important role of government is to help provide a free and friendly environment for wealth creation. We can give to the poor but the great thing about our country is that hopefully we give the poor more than money or material needs. The great gift that should be given to every American who is struggling is that there is hope. And that hope is not ultimately found in Washington but in Jesus Christ and with that hope comes the power to change. If we only give the poor of our country material goods and fail to give the message of the gospel and the message of American free enterprise and opportunity then no matter how much we give we will have sold them short.

Damon Young

1

Damon Young commented…

The reason this is a moral issue is the opposite of what the author writes. It is immoral to count on tax dollars to solve a social problem due to the fact that such a low percentage actually goes to the person in need. Because we do care and fight in our communities for opportunity for the poor, we must be brave enough to call the government aid what it is: A VERY badly managed charity with an agenda of marketing how it cares for votes. When I give to a charity I always look to see how their balance sheet looks and what percentage goes to programs versus administration. The US Government is the last group we want in altruistic activities. The cause and the needs are great enough we need only honest and efficient practitioners addressing the need.

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