The Common Good
January-February 1996

Of Amos and Newt

by Ronald J. Sider | January-February 1996

Budget cuts should make us weep--and rage.

Last fall, the Republican-controlled Congress passed legislation that would slash $380 billion dollars from programs for the poor and grant about $245 billion in tax cuts to the rich and middle class. They cut Head Start, food stamps, Pell grants, earned income tax credits-and gave wealthy taxpayers earning more than $100,000 a year tax cuts worth $47.6 billion on reduced capital gains taxes alone.

That makes me angry. And very sad. God judges nations by what they do to the poorest. The scriptures teach that knowing God is inseparable from seeking justice for the poor (Jeremiah 22). "The one who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord" (Proverbs 19:17). When we care for the least, we minister to Jesus himself (Matthew 25:40). But if the Bible is true and God pulls down societies that neglect the poor (Ezekiel 16:49-50), God have mercy on us.

Even now, one-fifth of all children in the United States live in poverty-the worst percentage among industrialized nations. And it is going to get even worse.

I'm not arguing that we continue business as usual. We need a radical overhaul of the welfare system. The budget deficit is immoral robbery of our grandchildren. But should we destroy today's children to save our grandchildren?

Forty percent of the Republicans' proposed budget cuts would come from slashed programs for the poor. Why not instead tap the $85 billion in corporate welfare that the federal government gives private corporations every year? House Republicans sent over a military budget $7 billion higher than the Pentagon even requested-an obvious place for cuts.

The drastic cuts in anti-poverty programs come on top of the losses of the previous 20 years. From 1973 to 1992, the poorest 10 percent of American families suffered an 11 percent drop in real income. On the other hand, the richest 10 percent enjoyed an 18 percent increase.

Over the past two decades, the poorest have become even poorer in absolute terms. And yet Congress proposed to trample harder on the poorest of our people.

TAKE A LOOK at the specifics. The House proposed to cut $42 billion in the next seven years from the earned income tax credit (EITC) for the working poor. (The EITC gives a tax credit to people who work but earn a low wage.) This program, started under Republican President Ford, was called by President Reagan "the best anti-poverty, the best pro-family, the best job creation measure to come out of Congress." And yet the Christian "pro-family" political lobbies have been strangely silent as the poorest working families have been attacked.

The House majority proposed ending SSI payments (grants to disabled children and unemployable adults) to legal immigrants. Is that not a blatant defiance of the biblical call to have special concern for the alien and sojourner? They wanted to cut 30 percent from the job training programs for the poor and unemployed-at a time when welfare changes will require people to work more. According to the House bill, $19 billion was slated to disappear from child nutrition programs, as well as money for schools with low-income students and Pell grants to college students from poor families. The list goes on and on, with cuts in Head Start, food stamps, assistance for low-income housing, and foreign economic aid.

That Congress proposes slashing these programs for the poor at the same time that it seeks tax cuts for the wealthy would make Amos and Isaiah weep. And rage.

Speaker Newt Gingrich called the tax cut legislation passed by the House the "crown jewel" of the Contract With America. It gives persons earning $350,000 a year a tax reduction of $13,000. Families earning $30,000 a year get $182.50-50 cents a day.

I have no interest in defending every scheme to "help" the poor that the Democrats tried over the last 30 years. Some of them were foolish, bureaucratic, and anti-family to boot. By all means, let's abandon failed programs and find new solutions.

But the poor matter-to God and to everyone who obeys God's Word. Do you think Jesus or Amos would simply slash programs for the poor rather than figure out better ways to empower them to become the whole persons the Creator intended?

Where are the Christian voices loudly insisting that God will judge this Congress and this generation of middle-class voters by how they treat the poorest? And why are the loudest Christian political voices not speaking for the weakest?

What Congress is doing to the poor is blatant, sinful defiance of the God of the poor. Even more tragically, it is doing it with the support of pro-family, pro-Christian voices. That makes me weep.

RONALD SIDER, a Sojourners contributing editor, is president of Evangelicals for Social Action and publisher of Prism magazine. A version of this editorial appeared in the November-December 1995 issue of Prism.

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