Imagine living paycheck to paycheck, and all of a sudden the rental assistance that keeps you in an apartment instead of a shelter gets taken away, along with the nutrition program that keeps your kids from missing meals. Imagine your bipolar child’s government-funded mental healthcare abruptly getting cut off. Or imagine receiving a layoff notice instead of a pay stub right as your mortgage payment is due. And imagine that your elected officials could have stopped it but chose not to do so.
All of these things will become reality for struggling American families if the federal budget cuts mandated by the sequester go into effect on March 1. It’s unconscionable, and it would be even worse if faith leaders hadn’t worked so hard to keep Social Security, Medicaid and food stamps off the chopping block.
Contrary to the GOP’s talking point that the sequester was all President Obama’s idea, our present predicament is a direct result of Congressional Republicans threatening to crash the economy on purpose in 2011 unless the White House agreed to massive, destructive budget cuts.
Contrary to what some Democrats are saying, the domestic cuts are not an acceptable price to pay for the sequester’s cuts to Pentagon spending. The military cuts are indiscriminate, cutting healthcare for servicemembers’ families and furloughing civilian teachers on military bases but not eliminating wasteful multibillion dollar weapons systems. Cutting our out-of-control military spending is important, but we need to do it without making families collateral damage.
The sequester is set to take effect in less than two weeks. The GOP’s leading budget wonk, Paul Ryan, said it’s going to happen because “we can’t lose those spending cuts.” We’ll know very soon whether he and his party leaders are capable of setting aside their ideological agenda and compromising for the good of the country.
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One of the more disappointing political developments in recent years has been the bipartisan obsession with the deficit while millions of Americans — many of whom work full-time — remain trapped in poverty. Thanks to the Tea Party’s ill-informed fears of “big government,” the political influence of corporate special interest groups like Fix the Debt, and the complicity of all too many Democrats, we haven’t just been pursuing the wrong policies — we’ve been having the wrong conversation. The government’s long-term fiscal imbalance doesn’t necessitate or morally justify fiscal austerity policies that hinder job creation.
Thankfully last night’s State of the Union address signaled an ongoing shift toward a more productive economic debate. Proclaiming that “deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan,” President Obama forcefully argued that a full-time job should lift Americans out of poverty, without exception, and specifically called on Congress to raise the minimum wage to $9 per hour and index it to future inflation.
Religious leaders have been calling for policies like this for years. As the debate heats up, our voices will be important. Millions of families served by faith-based charities work hard but still can’t make ends meet, and telling their stories is far more persuasive than talking about the myriad economic evidence showing that raising the minimum wage lifts people out of poverty and strengthens the economy. Throughout the fiscal debates brought on by Washington’s deficit hysteria, faith groups have fought hard to protect poor families from reckless cuts to programs like SNAP and Medicaid, and we’ll be on the front lines of the upcoming struggle on higher wages too.
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Lawmakers are still haggling over how to resolve the fiscal showdown, and a compromise will likely be unveiled next week. Right now only a handful of people have a clear idea of what will be in the proposal, and no one knows whether it will pass. Consequently, the pressure on Congress and the White House from outside groups has reached a fever pitch.
Faith leaders are working to protect poor families and the safety net, and to raise revenues by ending tax cuts for the richest 2% of Americans. Right-wing groups are fighting for tax cuts for the rich and cuts to crucial programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security that would result in immense human suffering. And influential groups with reputations for non-ideological fiscal seriousness – Fix the Debt and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget – are presenting dangerous priorities and policies as responsible, nonpartisan solutions.
Their agenda of deep cuts to entitlement benefits and lowering taxes on big business is enshrined in the beltway conventional wisdom, and they are courting faith leaders as validators. Given that Fix the Debt lists protecting the vulnerable as a core principle and projects a carefully cultivated image of fiscal responsibility, it’s easy to see why clergy would find them credible. But make no mistake – their agenda would further enrich powerful special interests while undermining economic security and healthcare for American families and seniors. That’s not the right way to tackle the debt. As the fiscal showdown culminates, we need to hold fast to the nonnegotiable principle that rewarding special interests while balancing the budget on the backs of seniors, working families and the poor is wrong.
For further thoughts on moral solutions to the showdown on Capitol Hill, check out this op-ed in The Hill’s Congress Blog by PICO policy director Gordon Whitman and me.
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Now that the election is over, Congress and the President have major issues to address in the lame duck session. You’ve probably heard about the “fiscal cliff” coming at the end of the year when the Bush tax cuts expire and massive budget cuts take effect. While it’s a misleading metaphor, it’s also a political showdown with enormous consequences. Key issues at stake are tax fairness and the future of safety net protections for seniors and families.
Faith leaders are already working to ensure that our elected officials provide solutions that reflect our values of justice, fairness and compassion. In Colorado, a Nuns on the Bus tour is visiting faith-based social service providers across the state, holding press conferences and meeting with Senators’ offices to call on Congress to let the Bush tax cuts for incomes above $250,000 expire and not cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits. Faith-based community organizers in key states are planning grassroots actions to pressure their Congressional delegations. Prominent clergy from the Faithful Budget Campaign will soon meet directly with Members of Congress to press for solutions that creates jobs, increases revenue, and reduces military spending while protecting vital safety net programs.
Pressure from the faith community is absolutely necessary to ensure that politicians make the richest Americans share in the sacrifice and don’t harm families and seniors. It’s an article of faith among inside-the-beltway pundits that huge cuts to Social Security and Medicare benefits are essential. Corporate CEOs are turning up the pressure on both parties to pass a “grand bargain” that includes billions in tax cuts for big business. Republicans, as usual, are pushing for tax cuts for millionaires and budget cuts that harm low-income Americans. Democrats are not immune to the temptation to strike a deal that puts corporate special interests before the well-being of the American people.
This all might sound like a complicated policy debate, but in essence it’s about our values. Faith in Public Life has compiled a messaging memo breaking down the issue and outlining how to effectively communicate about it in the public square. You can read it here.
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While the worst of Hurricane Sandy is over, we’re not in the clear yet and repairing the extensive damage will take a long time. My prayers are with everyone who has been harmed.
I’m thankful that the President and governors of both parties are working together to respond to the destruction. Protecting hard-hit communities at times like this requires careful coordination among federal, state and local governments, as well as all-hands-on-deck efforts by volunteers, charities and faith groups.
After Hurricane Katrina, religious congregations sent legions of volunteers and enormous resources to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and care for displaced families. Whatever the extent of Sandy’s destruction, I’m sure the faith community will rise to the occasion again.
The question is whether the government will hold up its end of the bargain after future disasters. The House Appropriations Committee proposed to cut FEMA’s budget by $269 million over the past two years, and the agency – which has been highly effective under President Obama — faces an automatic $900 million cut early next year if Congress doesn’t strike a deal to avert the budget sequestration that Congressional Republicans demanded during the debt default showdown.
In a GOP presidential primary debate last year, Mitt Romney said federal spending on disaster relief is immoral when there is a budget deficit, and such work should be handled by the states or even privatized. Perhaps sensing the political fallout, his campaign backtracked somewhat from these remarks yesterday. Whether he really changed his mind is anybody’s guess.
One thing is certain though. At a time when state budgets can’t pick up the slack and climate change makes natural disasters more destructive, cuts to resources like FEMA are pure folly – and they won’t make a dent in the deficit either.
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