The Common Good

Faith-based leaders say budget is major shift in poverty policy

Date: March 2, 2009

WASHINGTON (ABP) -- President Obama's first proposed budget signals a dramatic shift in prioritizing domestic poverty, centrist and liberal Christian leaders said in a teleconference with reporters March 2.

Nonetheless, some expressed concerns that portions of the proposal did not go far enough in alleviating poverty. And many conservative Christian leaders have echoed the criticisms of other conservatives -- that Obama's proposal is far too large and would create the most massive expansion of government social-service programs since Lyndon Johnson's administration.

Jim Wallis, founder and CEO of Sojourners, termed inequality between the haves and have-nots "a sin of biblical proportions" in the United States.

Wallis said budgets are "moral documents" that reveal the nation's priorities and values. For Christians, he said, there is "a religious obligation" to look out for the poor and vulnerable in society.

"For a long time we've almost thought that we don't need to bring values to bear or virtue to bear on our economic decisions -- the 'invisible hand' of the market would make everything come out all right -- but that hasn't happened," Wallis told reporters. "I would say the invisible hand has let go of the common good."

Wallis said the common good "has not been part of our decision-making for a long time now."

"This budget is a step, I think a dramatic step, to try to restore a sense of the common good," he said.

Wallis and other faith leaders applauded money in the budget for health care, the environment, education and increased foreign aid, but they also voiced concerns about the proposal they plan to address in coming weeks.

Candy Hill, senior vice president of social policy and government affairs for Catholic Charities USA, questioned the president's proposal to cut tax deductions for charitable giving for Americans in the top income brackets. She said most people who make contributions to Catholic Charities don't do so for a tax break, but because they support its mission and care for the poor.

Noel Castellanos, CEO of Christian Community Development Association, also lamented the budget does not include funds for immigration reform.

"In the Latino community you are going to hear more and more outrage and concern about the fact that no policy change means that we're going to rely on this enforcement-only strategy that divides families through ICE [the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency of the Department of Homeland Security] raids and creates more havoc of people who are victims of a system that is broken," Castellanos said.

But the leaders on the call said the particulars matter less than the overall budget trend.

"This budget clearly is an attempt to reverse a trend," Wallis said. "For three decades we've had a growing trend of massive inequality in this country. Those who have been promoting that trend have said that policies, regulations and practices which enhance and benefit the wealthiest among us will eventually benefit us all."

"I think that has proven to be false," he said. "The central moral issue in this budget, and in American politics right now, is whether we should begin to reverse the massive trend toward growing inequality after three decades."

Wallis said it is time for the government to stop helping "the undeserving rich."

"We've had this notion of the undeserving poor for a long time," Wallis said. "I'm saying now there has been a class of undeserving rich, who have been helped far more than they should be helped."

Wallis called the proposed budget "a fundamental moral shift."

"We have our concerns," he said, "but I think, fundamentally, the moral issue is whether this trend of inequality can now be halted and reversed, and we can begin to rebalance the budget more in the direction of the common good.