Commentary
By Adam R. Taylor 3-14-2019

Budgets are moral documents: They signal what and who we prioritize and seek to protect or uplift. As Christians we can disagree on many issues, but it should be hard to argue that there is an overriding call in the Bible to demonstrate a particular concern for the poor and prioritize the welfare of the vulnerable. This is the moral test by which we must evaluate every budget, perhaps most importantly the federal budget. Based on this test, the Trump administration’s proposed budget priorities for Fiscal Year 2020 fail miserably and must be rejected.

While the president’s budget proposal is increasingly not much more than a messaging document, it represents the first important salvo in the budgetary process, a process that will result in profound, and in some cases life and death, implications for people and communities across the country and world.

That is why we are asking you to join us in sending a clear and resounding message to every member of Congress that they must reject the deeply misguided and unjust priorities in the president’s budget and instead support a moral budget.

Though many media reports will gloss over this or avoid saying so, Trump’s budget priorities will disproportionately hurt the poor and communities of color, which will simply reinforce structural racism and exacerbate economic hardship.

The reason given for the draconian cuts being contemplated to programs like SNAP (food stamps) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is reducing the annual budget deficit. At the same time, taxes are as low as they’ve been in decades for the richest 1 percent, and the Trump proposes increasing the defense budget to $750 billion next year. The only place to find deficit reduction then, if cutting defense spending or raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans and corporations is off the table, is to decimate the ability of the non-defense part of the government to operate effectively and provide a social safety net. That non-defense spending already is only about 15 percent of the federal budget — a historically low level of 3.2 percent of GDP. It is from this already tiny pool that Trump’s budget proposal wants to extract the vast majority of its deficit reduction.

Here are a few of the most concrete ways the budget harms those already at risk and comforts the comfortable:

  • The budget includes a request for $8.6 billion in additional funding for Trump’s immoral border wall, a monument to xenophobia and racism.
  • The budget calls for using an accounting gimmick to get around caps on defense spending by more than doubling the size of a slush fund presidents from both parties have used to fund our ongoing foreign wars (or “overseas contingency operations” as they are euphemistically called). The increase in defense spending also increases the size of the cuts the administration wants to make everywhere else.
  • The budget envisions cutting SNAP by $220 billion over 10 years, and impose work requirements on many safety net programs, which a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences said “are least as likely to increase as to decrease poverty.”
  • This budget would also cut the international affairs budget by 23 percent and the humanitarian budget by 30 percent. Even the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR)— a government program dedicated to fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic overseas that has enjoyed longstanding bipartisan support — would be cut by a devastating 22 percent. Taken together these cuts exemplify the administration’s isolationism and disregard for the non-military aspects of foreign policy.
  • The budget calls for a significant slowdown in spending and a dramatic restructuring of Medicaid, a program primarily designed to provide access to health care for people in poverty.
  • The budget calls for extending permanently the 2017 tax cut, which gives more dollars to white households in the top 1 percent than the bottom 60 percent of households of all races. This budget would perpetuate our nation’s racial income inequity.

The immorality of the president’s budget goes beyond exacerbating income and wealth inequality. It also envisions radical reductions in spending on agencies that protect the environment and provide housing to the urban poor, to the tune of a 31 percent reduction in discretionary funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and an 18 percent reduction for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, among others.

It's very reasonable to ask: What would a just budget look like? Sojourners is a proud co-founder and co-chair of the Circle of Protection, a group of religious leaders who head Christian denominations and organizations from all major branches of Christianity, unprecedented in its theological breadth. The group was founded in 2011 around the principle that the nation and world’s most vulnerable people, particularly the poor and hungry, must be served and protected by the United States government’s budget. The Circle recently sent a letter to Capitol Hill urging members of Congress in both parties to work together to pass a just budget while also working to end poverty and increase opportunity for all of God’s children. That letter reads in part:

We urge you to pass a bipartisan budget agreement that both reverses harmful sequestration cuts and expands investments in critical programs serving people in poverty—both in the U.S. and around the world. We further urge you to prioritize funding for program areas targeted to help low-income individuals afford the essentials, such as low-income housing assistance, child care, and poverty-focused international assistance. It is not enough to simply prevent cuts to domestic and international anti-poverty programs. We call for additional investments in these programs.

Sojourners, along with our partners in the Circle of Protection, believe that we must focus our persuasion efforts on Congress in the year to come both because that is the branch that authorizes and appropriates government spending, and because this White House continues to display a callous disregard for the economically disadvantaged at every turn — with this week’s budget proposal marking the latest stark example.

On one hand, few of these proposals are new or unique to President Trump. His budget represents a wish-list that might be crafted by any number of right-wing politicians in this country. But at a certain point it’s necessary to point out that regardless of stated intent, the practical effect of many of these policies is to make life better for people who are overwhelmingly white and wealthy while making it more difficult for low-income people, who are disproportionately people of color. If we believe budgets are moral documents that reveal our priorities, this budget reveals an administration determined to protect a deeply inequitable status quo. Join us in resisting and transforming this status quo into a budget that reflects our most deeply held values and priorities.

 Rev. Adam R. Taylor is executive director of Sojourners. He previously led the Faith Initiative at the World Bank Group. 

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