We say that budgets are moral documents — and this new administration’s budget fails to pass the moral test of how it treats those in most need and jeopardy. Many of us in the faith community had deep moral concerns as we examined what the White House produced last week. If we listen to God’s word in Scripture, the measure of a budget is how it treats the ones Jesus calls the “least of these.”
That’s our test.
The more that experts examine Donald Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018, the more destructive elements come to light. I’ve focused in recent weeks on the massive cuts to programs that serve the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, and our churches — and that concern should continue to be central to our message and mission of creating a “circle of protection” around them. The latest analysis suggests that Trump’s budget would cut at least $193 billion from SNAP (formerly called food stamps) over the next decade, which would have a devastating impact on poor and hungry people. Medicaid would be cut by up to $1.3 trillion over the next 10 years, leaving children, the elderly, and our poorest families without access to medical care. Overall, 59 percent of total cuts from 2017-2026 are from programs that serve low and moderate income people.
But some of the smaller and more subtle cuts and changes contemplated by this budget have flown under the radar, and would have even more dangerous impacts on communities of color.
On Monday, the Washington Post revealed incredibly troubling news about the way the Trump administration is changing the government’s approach to civil rights. Perhaps because the story came out on Memorial Day, or because it deals with the inner workings of federal bureaucracy, it hasn’t gotten much attention (though Sojourners covered the story on Tuesday).
But the broad pattern and priorities are consistent with what we know about this administration: Donald Trump, Jeff Sessions, Steve Bannon, and many of the people who surround them do not seem to believe that civil rights need to be defended in 2017.
The focus of the Post story is how the Trump administration’s funding and policy priorities have already, and consistently, sought to minimize civil rights efforts in federal agencies that interact with the public. At the Department of Labor, Trump’s 2018 budget calls for disbanding a division that has spent the last four decades policing discrimination among federal contractors. At the Environmental Protection Agency, new leadership has proposed eliminating the environmental justice program, which specifically protects minority communities against toxic threats. At the Department of Education, the budget calls for significant staffing cuts to the Office of Civil Rights.
As I’ve described before, the Department of Justice has been at the forefront of this civil rights rollback — ordering sweeping reviews and reversals of agreements to reform local police departments with histories of civil rights abuses, and dropping its objection to a discriminatory voter ID law in Texas, to cite just two examples.
The administration has defended its plans for the Department of Labor by explaining that it plans to fold the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which currently employs 600 people, into another entity, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), claiming that this move will “improve services to citizens, and strengthen civil rights enforcement.” But their primary stated goal is cost-cutting. As the Post points out, these two offices have in the past had very different purposes: The EEOC investigates discrimination complaints that it receives from employees, while the compliance office proactively and systematically investigates federal contractors to make sure they comply with civil rights laws and regulations.
As Patricia Shiu, who led the compliance office for 7 years, pointed out, “Most people do not know why they don’t get hired. Most people do not know why they do not get paid the same as somebody else.”
In other words, this office fulfills a critical function because most workers who have been discriminated against don’t know they have grounds to file a complaint.
Budget decisions and political appointments to little-known offices in the vast federal bureaucracy all flow from the direction set by the White House, and their cumulative effect makes a real difference in how people interact with their government. In many cases, civil rights offices in federal agencies were set up to counter discriminatory patterns that had been prevalent for decades.
The reason the EPA has an office for environmental justice — which new administrator Scott Pruitt wants to eliminate — is due to the recognition that communities of color have historically faced disproportionate levels of pollution in their air, water, and soil.
We shouldn’t have to look further than the fact that the residents of Flint, Mich., still do not have safe drinking water to understand the need for the EPA to pay more attention to environmental justice, rather than eliminating the office altogether.
Similarly, the crisis of campus sexual assault has not gotten any better since January. And forcing the office charged with investigating schools for Title IX violations to make do with less staff is not going to help our government to safely, swiftly, and compassionately address these violations.
Social and economic inequities are not just personal attitudes — they are the result of structural problems prevalent in many sectors of society and government. In the face of this reality, the federal government can be a force for good, attempting to correct its own past complicity and working to prevent future discriminatory behavior by businesses, schools, contractors, local police departments, and more.
But this administration’s disregard for civil rights in the federal agencies it administers leads to an inescapable conclusion: The Trump administration seems committed to rolling back progress towards racial equity and blocking progress toward a more just and multi-cultural American future.