The Common Good

Budgets, Social Security, and the Common Good

Sojomail - July 19, 2005


SojoMail Special Issue: Budgets, Social Security, and the common good
07.19.2005 www.sojo.net


POLITICALLY CONNECT ^top

Budgets, Social Security, and the common good
by Yonce Shelton

The gap between rich and poor continues to widen, threatening not only low-income families, but also the middle class. Yet Congress is working on annual spending bills that will cut more than $200 billion from family and community supports such as health care, education, housing, nutrition, and more. When people play by society's rules but can't provide for their families, there is a problem. Government is not the entire solution, but it should help - not hurt - those working to attain a living family income (see Call to Renewal's "Living Family Income" campaign). Our communities are affected, too, by deep domestic spending cuts. From Head Start to housing vouchers, communities are challenged to do a better job with fewer resources. As a result, hope, dignity, and opportunity for all suffer. Is this government for the common good?

In September, one week after Congress takes the final vote to cut billions from social programs in 2006 (and after they hope the outrage has died down), they'll vote on a separate budget bill expected to contain more than $100 billion in new tax cuts heavily favoring the rich. As in the past, social program cuts will be made in the name of fiscal restraint even though the new tax spending would increase the deficit by more than $100 billion over five years. Many leaders won't connect the dots publicly. In addition, like the recent tax cuts for the rich, new cuts probably won't really help low- and middle-income families. Help for struggling families was taken out of the 2003 bill at the last minute behind closed doors. Why should we expect anything different now, even though with poverty on the rise for the past three years it doesn't look like the so-called "trickle down" effect has helped?

Tax cuts during recession, tax cuts during prosperity, tax cuts during war, tax cuts during peace, tax cuts with the third largest deficit in history. A broken record? Try broken public policy. When are tax cuts for the rich not the solution to a better tomorrow? What about long-term investment in all people and all families? Is this government for the common good?

The country needs better moral vision and political will. The nation needs broader perspectives, deeper thought, and less bitter partisanship. If leaders can't see the imbalance in Washington, the people should point it out and challenge priorities. Values based mainly on tax cuts, community neglect, and disregard for a positive role for government do not add up. People of faith should raise concerns about our future and offer better political solutions to growing challenges. Social Security is an opportunity to do just that.

To the detriment of the common good, the discussion of Social Security has been almost exclusively focused on privatization. Fifty-seven percent of Americans now say that privatization is a "bad idea" and 71% of seniors are "hostile" to the idea (The Wall Street Journal, July 14, 2005). Nevertheless, the only Social Security proposals with a chance of being addressed by Congress include private accounts, cut benefits, and do not address the coming Social Security shortfall or include steps to extend the program's solvency. Republican leaders have noted their intent for any bill moving along the legislative process to eventually adopt private accounts. Social Security does not exist in a vacuum. New York Times op-ed writer Matt Miller recounts what one Republican told him privately: "It's lunacy to think we can keep [federal] revenue this low as we start to double the number of seniors on Social Security...endless tax cuts in this context amounts to a shocking case of collective denial." (The New York Times, June 1, 2005). Is this government for the common good?

People of faith should be troubled by the narrow focus thus far in the Social Security debate. Addressing Social Security requires a moral framework that helps shape prudential judgments about proposals and political leadership. If we want congressional leaders to listen to the people and broaden the debate, we must help them understand what is at stake for all Americans, including widows and orphans, the ill and disabled, low-income elderly and children. We need to put the people - us - back in the conversation, help move the discussion to higher ground, and urge leaders to keep the promise for all God's people. As Miller says, "All it would take is enough of us rebelling against a perverse culture in which 'political courage' is oddly defined as 'telling the truth.'"

Enough is enough. Let's demand better and more prophetic political leadership and a deeper understanding of the role of values, community, and government in strengthening the common good. Social Security, a covenant for the common good, is a place to make that stand. It's a place to define our vision for faith in politics - for government for the people, and by the people.

Yonce Shelton is national coordinator and policy director of Call to Renewal.

Join Call to Renewal and Sojourners in the coming weeks to strengthen Social Security with our "Covenant for the Common Good" campaign.



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