The Common Good
May 2009

A Step Toward the Common Good

by Jim Wallis | May 2009

Several years ago, faced with a disastrous federal budget proposal, So­jou­rn­ers started using the phrase “budgets are moral documents.” That phrase has now entered the ...

Several years ago, faced with a disastrous federal budget proposal, So­jou­rn­ers started using the phrase “budgets are moral documents.” That phrase has now entered the common lexicon, and it remains one of our fundamental principles.

Budgets reflect the values and priorities of a family, church, organization, city, state, or nation. They tell us what is most important and valued to those making the budget. So it is important that we do a “values audit” of President Barack Obama’s proposed budget, a “moral audit” of our priorities. Who benefits in this budget, what things are revealed as most important, and what things are less important? America’s religious communities are required to ask of any budget: What happens to the poor and most vulnerable—especially, what becomes of the nation’s poorest children in these critical decisions?

The values of the Ameri­can people should also be applied to the budget—for example, fairness (everyone paying their fair share); opportunity for all Ameri­cans; fiscal, personal, and social responsibility; balancing important and different priorities; defining security more broadly than only military considerations, taking into account economic and family security too; compassion and protection for the vulnerable; building community; and upholding the common good. After many years of working to reverse cuts that harmed those in poverty, it’s a breath of fresh air to see a proposed budget that benefits poor and low-income people.

THE PRESIDENT’S BUDGET is a step toward restoring the value of the common good to our public policy. It is a step to rebalance our nation’s priorities, protect the vulnerable, and strengthen the middle class. It contains major investments in the president’s three priorities: significantly expanding health-care coverage, slowing climate change and developing renewable energy, and investing in education (early childhood programs, strengthening and reforming public schools, expanded opportunities for college), all of which will benefit low-income people. There are also positive changes in important areas such as tax policy, food and nutrition programs, housing, aid to veterans, prisoner reentry, global food security, and increased foreign aid for combating pandemic disease. It’s a budget aimed at redressing the imbalances.

The growing inequality in America during recent decades is a sin of biblical proportions, and it’s time to bring principles of social justice to bear. The fundamental moral question in the upcoming budget de­bate is whether to begin to reverse the rapid and massive increase in American inequality that has occurred over the past 30 years—and dramatically escalated during the past eight.

I believe it is time to stop helping the undeserving rich, under the now demonstrably false assertion that this will then benefit the rest of us. When the top 1 percent of the country now get 20 percent of its income, control 33 percent of its wealth, and pay a smaller percentage of their income in taxes than their receptionists do (as Warren Buffett has pointed out)—something has gone terribly wrong in America. The Obama budget is a first and dramatic step to turn the nation in a different direction.

PART OF THAT different direction is the focus of this month’s Sojourners—growing a green economy. The budget contains a considerable commitment toward creating a clean energy economy. Significant investments are proposed in a comprehensive approach to transforming our energy supply, doubling the amount of renewable energy generated by wind and other sources, and developing low-carbon emission technologies.

There are huge potential benefits to a fundamental transformation in the ways our society creates, harnesses, and uses energy. Massive numbers of jobs can be created—and they can be good jobs, not just the low-paying service industry work that now dominates expanded employment. Energy transformation can give a new focus to educational priorities and prospects, especially for lower-income people, who often face limited opportunities.

Several articles in this issue highlight a new generation of young activists who are working at the juncture of economic justice and environmental stewardship. Majora Carter, Green For All founder Van Jones, and others see an integral connection between creating good jobs and protecting creation, a connection that can also lead to energy savings and self-sufficiency. The projects they founded, along with others around the country, are showing the way to a more just and sustainable future. And for many of those involved, it is also a matter of faith—a transformation that is crucial for our personal renewal, social renewal, and political renewal.

The conversion (and that’s the right word) from our addiction to oil and other fossil fuels to cleaner, safer, and eventually more affordable sources of energy could redeem our nation’s foreign policies. There is perhaps no single greater cause for America’s international hypocrisy and habitual drives to war than our current dependence on oil.

To change those policies and open up new possibilities for genuine peace and democracy in the Middle East, the energy needs and policies of the world’s most powerful nations will have to change. In a time like ours, when climate change and ecological pressures threaten the survival of civilization as we know it, we must reassert an ethic of environmental stewardship rooted in our most basic moral and religious values.

The new budget proposed by the White House is a dramatic step in the direction of the common good, with strong support for the middle class, real help for the poorest among us, and the proposition that the wealthiest pay their fair share. My prediction is that many in the faith community, especially those on the front lines of serving the poor, will rally around the principles and priorities of this budget, bringing their energy and advocacy to bear on the debate that now lies ahead. Because this will not just be a policy debate, but also a moral one, the prayers of the faithful—along with their watchful eyes, willing hands, and ready feet—will surround the congressional budget and appropriations process over the next few months.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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