A Biblical Perspective on the Debt Ceiling Debate | Sojourners

A Biblical Perspective on the Debt Ceiling Debate

The U.S. Capitol is reflected in a dwindling puddle in the midst of ongoing negotiations seeking a deal to raise the U.S. debt ceiling and avoid a catastrophic default, in Washington, D.C. on May 24, 2023. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

As lawmakers on Capitol Hill argue about the national debt, the Bible verse that’s been on my mind is Proverbs 3:27: “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.”

When it comes to the debt ceiling, or the legal limit the U.S. is allowed to borrow to pay back our expenses, people aren’t really getting the truth. According to House Republicans, it’s only “fiscally responsible” to raise the debt ceiling alongside federal spending cuts to federal programs that benefit low-income Americans.

Of course, these legislators wouldn’t say they’re targeting poor folks; instead, they talk about the importance of adding increased “work requirements” to social safety net programs so that people get “back to work” (never mind that the U.S. already has the lowest unemployment rate in 53 years). In fact, both Republicans and some Democrats have long claimed that giving money to low-income Americans through programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which helps millions of low-income households buy food, without requiring them to work discourages them from getting jobs and creates a burden for U.S. taxpayers.

But here’s the thing: That’s not true.

First things first: When we are talking about raising the debt limit, we are not talking about future spending, but rather spending the U.S. has already committed to, including things like veterans’ services; Meals on Wheels and other programs that older adults rely on; economic support like SNAP or Medicaid; and family support that includes child care, food pantries, and the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infant, and Children (WIC). We have already incurred these bills for services and programs that the government is legally bound to pay for. If members of Congress are concerned about future federal spending levels, they can use the regular process — known on Capitol Hill as budgeting and appropriations — which happens every year.

Next, if legislators are genuinely interested in increasing employment, adding more requirements to social safety net programs is not the way to do it. A growing body of research shows that adding more work rules to programs will likely have no impact on employment. One recent study, based on data in Virginia, found that adding work requirements for people who receive SNAP did not boost recipients’ likelihood of employment or increased income. In fact, according to Congressional Budget Office, when factoring in the cost of implementing new requirements on programs like SNAP, Medicaid, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), it wasn’t clear whether new requirements would save the U.S. much money — and could wind up costing the U.S. more money than it saved. That same report also stated: “By removing families from TANF before they found work—and by deterring families from entering the program—work requirements have probably played a role in increasing the number of families in deep poverty.”

But regardless of whether the added requirements would actually save money, there’s one place where experts agree that the program would succeed: kicking out a large number of poor people from the program.

To be clear: Ensuring that all people in the U.S. have good jobs that provide a living wage is vital to our economic success. But while some may think that folks who benefit from these programs are lazy and don’t want to work, the truth is that the majority of participants in programs such as SNAP and Medicaid already do work. The problem is that they are often employed in low-paying jobs that don’t provide a living wage. To me, this calls to mind James 5:4: “The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you.”

As a person of faith, I’m angry and frustrated at the hypocrisy of this situation. Under former President Donald Trump, legislators agreed to raise the debt ceiling three times with bipartisan support. This included increases that followed Republican-supported tax credits and tax cuts benefiting wealthy people, which cost the U.S. an estimated $1.9 trillion in revenue. In fact, raising the debt ceiling has often been bipartisan in our political history. Congress has acted 78 times to either raise, extend, or revise the debt limit; 29 times under Democratic presidents and 49 times under Republicans. But now, many of these same legislators who supported previous action have decided they will not raise the debt ceiling unless they can also secure spending cuts.

How can they justify, on moral grounds, their demands to hurt millions of people in the name of “savings” when that same standard did not apply previously? Further, why are we not asking for those who are accumulating wealth and power at a gluttonous pace (I mean, did you see your wealth grow by 62 percent during the pandemic like billionaires did?) to pay their fair share in taxes? What do you think Jesus would say to a group of individuals whose wealth grew as much during two years of the pandemic as they did in the previous 23? The Jesus that I know was livid that the wealthy allowed their consumption to displace God in their lives. The Jesus I know told a parable about rich man who was warned: “‘Son, remember that during your lifetime you had everything you wanted, and Lazarus had nothing. So now he is here being comforted, and you are in anguish’” (Luke 16:25).

If Congress does not raise the debt ceiling by June 1, the U.S. will default on its loans and the consequences will be devastating, including higher interest rates for outstanding U.S. debt and global financial crisis. Democratic legislators say a default could also result in significant losses in retirement savings, veteran benefits, Social Security checks, and jobs.

In this perilous moment, now is not the time for political games that only serve people whose lives are unencumbered by daily worries of how to pay bills, where the next meal is coming from, or managing chronic health conditions without adequate access to health care. The solution is clear: We need to raise the debt ceiling and then work on a budget that looks for meaningful revenue raisers by addressing the extreme disparities in our tax code instead of asking the poor and working poor to subsidize our economy.

President Joe Biden must stay true to his previous promises — which I've heard some policy advocates refer to as the “Biden Principle” — to reject policies that would increase poverty, cut food assistance, and health care, principles that echo Matthew 25 and the injunction of the biblical prophets to protect widows, orphans, migrants, and people living in poverty.

Proverbs instructs us not to withhold good when it is in our power to act. And for people of faith and conscience, now is the moment to demand that Biden and Congress reject cuts to vital programs that will help working families afford their basic needs. Slashing the social safety net and disinvesting in programs that help children, families, and students thrive creates a hierarchy of humanity that is counter to our shared faith values.

We must be a nation that does not accept suffering as a normal part of the human condition because we know that suffering breaks the heart of God. If we are going to lead by faith, then we need to lead the war against poverty, not start a war on the poor disguised as an attempt to reduce our growing deficit. We cannot withhold good.

To learn more about the debt ceiling and what it means for people of faith, SojoAction, The Maiden Group, and Friends Committee on National Legislation-Education Fund held a webinar discussion featuring remarks from Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock.

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