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April 5th, 2012

Budgets Are Moral Documents

Remembering the poor and marginalized when we're crunching numbers


Ron Swanson, the man’s man parks director played by Nick Offerman on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” is a libertarian who believes “child labor laws are ruining this country.” He describes government as “a greedy piglet that suckles on a taxpayer’s teat until they have sore, chapped nipples.”

Despite his extreme views, Swanson holds great admiration for his deputy, Leslie Knope, played by Amy Poehler. Knope is the sunny antidote to Swanson’s anti-government rants; she believes that government is a force for good in the community, providing not only necessary services to residents of fictional Pawnee, Indiana, but also programs and resources that improve their lives. Swanson, of course, disagrees. (Watch highlights of Swanson’s anti-government rants here).

Swanson is a bit of a caricature, and I suspect even he doesn’t believe all of what he says, but the contrast between him and Knope offers a visual of the national debate over government. Though presidential politics continues to dominate the news cycle, another battle is shaping up in Congress, where House Republicans have presented a slash-and-burn budget proposal, seeking to privatize, cut, and minimize the role of government in the lives of US citizens. Not surprisingly, Catholic and Christian relief organizations are warning against this approach.

From the Associated Press:

Republicans are ready to ram through the House an election-year, $3.5 trillion budget that showcases their deficit-cutting plan for revamping Medicare and slicing everything from food stamps to transportation while rejecting President Barack Obama’s call to raise taxes on the rich.

The blueprint by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., [a Catholic] was headed for all but certain House passage Thursday, mostly along party lines. It faces a demise that is just as sure in the Democratic-run Senate, which plans to ignore it, but the battle remains significant because of the clarity with which it contrasts the two parties’ budgetary visions for voters.

Republicans were focused on sharper deficit reduction and starkly less government than Democrats wanted and were proposing to lower income tax rates while erasing many unspecified tax breaks. Obama and Democrats were ready to boost taxes on families making above $250,000 and on oil and gas companies, add spending for roads and schools and cull more modest savings from domestic programs.

The Washington Post notes, “Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget concentrates almost two-thirds of its cuts on programs that primarily serve low-income Americans even as its tax cuts disproportionately benefit millionaires,” and Ezra Klein writes:

The cuts to Medicaid and other health programs for the poor are twice the size of those to Medicare. The cuts to education, to food stamps, to transportation infrastructure and to pretty much everything else besides defense are draconian. As for the tax reform component, it cuts taxes on millionaires by more than $250,000, but it doesn’t name a single loophole or tax break that Ryan and the Republicans would close. In the end, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that 62 percent of the cuts come from programs for low-income Americans and 37 percent of the tax benefits go to the few Americans earning more than $1 million.

Poor and marginalized Savior

Budgets aren’t simply spreadsheets of numbers with winners and losers. In a way, they are moral documents that articulate the priorities of a nation, state, organization, or individual. Because money and resources are finite, budgets are a zero sum game; whatever x gets lessens the availability for y. In Ryan’s plan, the military and wealthy Americans get more while the poor and weak get less. The visual of such a budget is striking this week, when Christians across the world commemorate the death of their poor and marginalized Savior at the hands of a well-funded and powerful army. Jesus cared for the poor and marginalized, and called on his followers to do the same. Certainly how we care for the sick and feed the hungry might look different now than it did 2,000 years ago, but the message should still challenge us today. How we allocate our money must be informed by this message.

Because budgeting is a moral issue, Catholic organizations are taking a stand. Catholics United, “a non-partisan organization dedicated to promoting the message of justice and the common good found at the heart of the Catholic Social Tradition,” said in an email alert to supporters that:

Paul Ryan’s budget violates our moral priorities as a nation. His budget breaks the covenant we’ve made to our seniors by ending Medicare as we know and forces seniors to pay more for their prescription drugs. His budget takes food off the table of the poor and jobs away from working families.

A couple of US Catholic Bishops had this to say:

A just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons; it requires shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending and addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs fairly.

Democrats and Republicans alike agree that the federal government has a massive deficit that must be reined in, but from there they diverge dramatically. President Obama and the Democrats want to combine program cuts, including defense cuts, with raised taxes on the wealthy, generally meaning families that annually earn over $250,000. Ryan and his Republican colleagues hold the view that individuals are taxed too highly already and that the United States can no longer afford massive government-run programs that constitute the safety net. Both sides say that they are motivated by the long-term health of the nation and its citizens.

In one of my favorite episodes of “Parks and Rec,” Leslie Knope rallies the parks department to resurrect one of Pawnee’s greatest events, the harvest festival, a celebration of small town values and community that had once been the envy of all other Indiana municipalities. While she was not caring for the sick or looking after the poor, Knope was using her power as a public official to better the lives of Pawnee’s citizens. Though heartwarming, “Parks and Rec” remains a fictional TV show. The reality we’re living with today: The proposed federal budget affects many, and asks the poor to sacrifice too much.

The Author : Michael O'Loughlin
Mike O'Loughlin is a writer living in Washington, D.C., covering religion, politics, and culture. In addition to Busted Halo, his writing appears in the Advocate, National Catholic Reporter, Foreign Policy, Religion & Politics, and America. He's also appeared on Fox News and MSNBC. Follow him on twitter at @mikeoloughlin.
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  • John

    @Phil Fox Rose, I agree. I think my comment was worded too strongly. You are right: the true opposite of charity is allowing those in need to suffer when we could be helping. What I meant is that paying your taxes and/or voting for someone because they say they will help the poor if elected is _not_ charity, but unfortunately, people often act as if it is. One still has an obligation to act charitably from what one has, regardless of what the government does with one’s taxes. You give to caesar what belongs to him, and then you start acting charitably with what is left. So I think a balance has to be struck between the government doing it all, and allowing some space (and enough income and freedom from tax burden) for people to have freedom to act charitably, even if that means that many people refuse to do so.

    I think part of the discussion is where exactly the moral imperative to take care of the poor lies. I believe it lies more with us than the government. In some sense, when we have the government take care of the poor, we a.) feel like we have less of an obligation to do it personally, which is bad, and b.) we decide that we feel comfortable having the government take our neighbor’s property to care for the poor so we don’t have to give as much, which is also bad. This, of course, has to be balanced with the reality that there are actually poor people to care for, and so there is some need for the government to have a fall-back position in case it turns out that people just aren’t charitable enough. It’s a tough balance, but the point is that it has to be a balance.

    Also, I agree with the comment about giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. We are in a slightly different position, however, since we the people decide how much belongs to the government by who we elect. (Caesar didn’t need to consult anyone to levy taxes.) Thus, there is still room for discussion on what taxes should or should not be levied.

  • David

    While I don’t agree with the currently proposed cuts by Congress, I do agree with a lot of other comments here that the role of government is not necessarily supposed to be an Almighty weighty character helping solve all society’s needs. They govern. That’s their purpose, they serve to protect and moderate, and I know many Christians who in the meantime, think they’re giving plenty to help those who are destitute, when in reality, Jesus is calling for far more action on our part than modern Christians in mainstream Western society are often giving. It’s not that they’re bad people. But we could all be giving more. Making it a government mandated thing though I think is a pretty dangerous path to go.

  • Phil Fox Rose

    While I’m not supporting the conclusions of this column and strongly agree about the issue of stewardship, I want to respond to James and John. Forced giving is not the opposite of charity. Letting those in need suffer while you have extra is the opposite of charity. But even more importantly, I feel it’s pretty obvious that while Jesus did not advocate for “forced giving” he did have something to say about it, and he was quite clear:

    ‘Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’

  • John

    Exactly, James. Forced giving is the opposite of charity. Charity is by definition giving freely from what one has and therefore, cannot be forced by the state. Also, it is wrong to say that the budget is zero sum. If that were the case there wouldn’t be a deficit. It seems that stewarding what we are given, not borrowing too much, and having a balanced budget are also important moral issues that both sides but especially the Dems fail to address.

  • Thien Ta

    Where is the morality for forcing people to contribute against their freewill, to fund abortion, to make the future generation pay for the present corruption in entitlement programs, or for the government to use $$$ as means to buy votes?

  • Johnny Zakhariah

    I am dependent on the government to make sure you don’t drive 150 miles an hour and harm my family. I am also dependent on the government that your greed is not so extreme that it will harm my family.

  • Marguerite

    I think you’re confusing the need to help real dependency with the dangers of government dependency. Studies show that people who rely on the federal government tend to stay on that handout and never better their circumstances. But people with real needs helped by local communities, private religious groups and neighbors have the feeling of reciprocal need (i.e., skin in the game). They’re more likely to feel like someone is holding them accountable and encouraging them to improve their circumstances. Rather than demand government solve the problem, let’s look at ways local and private groups can help one another. And let’s hold government accountable for it’s lack of staying within any kind of budget (hence, an upcoming debt ceiling vote in just six months).

  • Johnny Zakhariah

    I used to be a Republican because they have a pro-life position. But after I saw how they treat the poor and their blatant bias for the rich and powerful I knew no Catholic can support them.

    The republicans were against raising the minimum wage which is what a slave would make is disturbing and a social evil. They are forcing families to have abortions.

    Plus every state republican attacks the poor when it comes to budget cuts such as cut low-income housing so the rich can enjoy their parties in Beverly Hils.

  • Doug

    Here is the full text of the letter to congress from representatives of the USCCB:


    It is a balanced letter that recognizes we must, as a nation, take care of future generations as well as do our best to care for the marginalized of today.

    It doesn’t call out Paul Ryan as a Catholic who believes our focus needs to be on saving our future economy.

  • Jane

    I think the author’s point is very valid. What sort of nation are we if we mend our budget issues on the backs of the poorest among us?

  • Jeff

    Yes, the chuch has a role, but so does the government. A small change in a program such as the one formerly called WIC (Women, Infants & Children) has a muuch bigger economic impact than anything the churches could do.

  • Linda

    @ James: Read Acts 32-37 It calls us to live in community with one another not in competition.

  • Doug

    Generally, the author of this article is out of touch with the realities of our situation. Jesus did not call for the “government” to take of the poor. He called Christians to take of the poor. Is the author giving back in a sacrificial way? Has he done everything he can personally to take care of the poor, widowed, orphans, imprisoned, and those sick within his community?

    Many Catholics believe the deficit spending is just as serious of moral issue in that we are robbing our country’s future ability to have a safety net for the elderly and poor – just look at Greece and you will see our future if we don’t take responsible action now.

    Shame on the author for belittling Paul Ryan because he is following his Catholic faith from a different Christian point of view.

  • James

    While I was paying federal taxes at 40%, and very onerous property taxes, there were people near me with similar incomes who were GIVEN houses largely because of their race. Should money be confiscated from a person of one race to buy a house for a similarly situated person of another race? This is not moral.

    The video raises the issue of government art subsidies. The government pays considerable money in individual artist grants, even though their own studies show that receiving or not receiving the grant has no correlation with whether or not the project is completed. Plus, these grants don’t go to young, struggling artists, but largely more “accomplished” ones who are not indigent. Should we be forced to pay for that? Does Christianity call for that?

    A great deal of money forced from Americans’ pockets goes to pay for things that are not consistent with Christian moral principles or that are more efficiently and justly handled by private charity, particularly religious charities.

    And let me reiterate: Jesus did not call for forced confiscation and redistribution of wealth, only voluntary assistance to the poor.

  • Karen

    Isn’t it time that we, the Catholic Church took care of the poor – not the unresponsive, overreaching out of control federal government?

  • James

    Jesus encourages private, voluntary charity, but he nowhere advocates government confiscation and forced transfer of wealth, so the writer’s argument breaks down right there.

    And note that Obama has advocated reducing or eliminating high income earners’ charitable deductions. This would constitute a sort of confiscation from charitable organizations (including Catholic ones) and put the money the rich would have donated directly in the hands of the government itself to distribute for their own political or corrupt purposes, many of which are immoral with regard to Catholic teaching.

    There is nothing wrong, for example, with slashing from the budget the hundreds of millions that government confiscates from Christians to pay for elective abortions.

    And let’s take some examples from my world:

    I have known women who had to kick their husbands out of the house and raise them fatherless before they could get government food assistance. Is it moral for the government to confiscate money from taxpayers and use it to undermine the family structure — especially since women have since learned to “cut out the middleman” and give birth and raise children without the presence of a father at all?

    There are very many other women who do not marry, because their permanent boyfriends, the fathers of their children, own the property and make an adequate living to support the family, and the woman can enhance their lifestyle by bringing home public assistance by being “unwed” and appearing on paper to be indigent. Should we be paying for that?

    While I was paying federal taxes at 40%

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