The Common Good

Prioritize the Poor

Sojomail - March 29, 2007

Untitled Document

"When you have decided to do human rights work, you have to live with fear .... "

- Douglas Gwatidzo, a Zimbabwean doctor who is treating activists severely beaten for their opposition to President Robert Mugabe and his policies. (Source: The Washington Post)

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Prioritize the Poor

Last week, Sojourners/Call to Renewal joined many other advocates in asking the Senate to take a step toward a moral budget. In a letter that went to every senator, I requested that each "make sure to prioritize poor and working families, children, and the elderly as you determine where our nation commits its energies and resources." I continued, "what is needed now is bold leadership and an agenda that sets clear priorities and seeks to empower families. We need to protect critical programs and increase aid, but also recommit ourselves to the notion of the common good."

But what does that recommitment look like in a budget? In line with the Covenant for a New America, I asked the senators for a $50 billion commitment for reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), $15 billion in new spending for the Farm Bill (to be used to strengthen the food stamp program and ensure that all eligible families receive increased support), and greater support for the Millennium Development Goals, including $5 billion in effective U.S. foreign assistance for poverty reducing programs.

Last Friday, because of the chorus of advocates speaking with a common voice, the Senate made some progress with the passage of its budget blueprint (S Con Res 21), adopted by a 52-47 vote. How did it fare according to the Covenant vision?

  • Regarding SCHIP, the Senate resolution signaled a commitment to find the $50 billion required to expand the program and cover more kids.
  • The Senate’s budget resolution also allocates $15 billion to "strengthen our agriculture and rural economies and critical nutrition programs" under the Farm Bill. Much more work is needed to make sure that those funds are actually directed to those who need them most, but this is a step forward.
  • Another clear success concerned U.S. foreign assistance for poverty reducing programs. The faith community played a pivotal role in pushing for an amendment that reversed a proposed $2.2 billion cut to the international affairs budget. In the end, a strong bipartisan group of Senators publicly confirmed their support for the amendment, providing the leadership needed to result in passage by unanimous consent. The overall increase to the international affairs budget is $3.7 billion, which would be the greatest one-year increase for global poverty-focused assistance in recent history. This money will go toward critical programs for clean water, life-saving medication, education, economic growth, and diplomatic programs in the world's poorest countries.

This week, the debate moved to the House, and that provided us another chance to influence the budget process. Tuesday, I sent a letter to all House members with the same requests I made of the Senate – remember that budgets are moral documents that must represent the best in our priorities. And yesterday, we gave you the chance to act by asking you to tell Congress to pass a moral budget.

This afternoon, the House budget blueprint passed, also prioritizing increased funding for SCHIP and the Farm Bill, requests that many in the faith and advocacy community have made with a unified voice. However, the House resolution under-achieves the Senate’s on the International Affairs Budget by calling for a total of $35.3 billion, $1.2 billion below the Senate-passed levels and the administration’s request. As the budget now moves into conference, we will advocate for the higher Senate figure.

Our nation needs the affirmation that budgets are moral documents, and we need our leaders to commit to that vision in order to recover some of our nation’s greatness; greatness that comes from empowering families, protecting the common good, and acting upon the needs of "the least of these" among us.

We must act on the premise that family security – especially for those working hard and not making it – is part of national security. If we do not act on this premise, we are not uplifting, but rather ignoring, the commitments that moral and spiritual leadership should produce. A moral budget is a step in the right direction.

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