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.