Circling Up To Protect the Poor

Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., chairman of the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. (CNS photo/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin)
Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. (CNS photo/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin)
As Congress struggles with how to create a national budget, and with hundreds of billions of dollars of cuts to the military, federal agencies, and social service programs looming, a group of religious leaders released a letter this week reminding elected officials of their duty to the poor and marginalized.

Calling themselves the “Circle of Protection,” the group drafted a letter to President Obama, Majority Leader Harry Reid, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker John Boehner, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, thanking them for their commitment to reducing the staggering national deficit, and also asking them to consider the poor by sparing social programs, whenever possible, during this process.

They write that there are legitimate debates to be held about how to run government most effectively, and the role that it should play in society, but they call for actions that prevent “a serious economic setback or push more people into poverty” and that will “advance the common good, ensure fairness, and defend the most vulnerable is good religion and good politics.”

Of note in the letter is a plea to frame the budget debate as a moral issue, something I wrote about last year as well. They state:

Important choices must be made: we must weigh the benefits of tax credits for low-income people and tax breaks for high-income people; of nutrition assistance to low-income families and subsidies to agricultural businesses. Within the category of “defense,” there is a difference between legitimate national security and unnecessary spending. Congress can and must develop a balanced and thoughtful path forward that protects the most vulnerable and preserves economic opportunity.

Simply put: there is only so much money out there for the government to spend, and every dollar we spend on national defense is one less we spend on economic development or poverty reduction. Of course, there are legitimate national security concerns and a basic function of government is to protect its citizens, all its citizens. To the struggling families whose lives have been turned upside down because of the economic calamities begun in 2008, that protection must be economic as well. How are those at the bottom faring as those at the top settle back into comfort? Is there room in the middle class for more families, or are we headed toward even greater gaps between the rich and the poor?

What do the potential cuts mean for families and the poor? According to CNN:

Some 4 million home-bound and disabled seniors may have to go without supper this year because of cuts to Meals on Wheels programs, some 70,000 children from lower-income families will not be able to enroll for preschools and day care centers run by Head Start programs this fall and on average, it would mean a cut of $400 for nearly 3.8 million Americans.

Remarkable about this letter is the diversity of Christian denominations reflected by the signatories (I’ve picked out the Catholic signers below). Along with Catholics, there are representatives from liberal traditions, including the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, and representatives from traditionally conservative Evangelical groups. That they begin by praising efforts to reduce the deficit is noteworthy, as some on the left tend to dismiss this as a priority. And yet they also call for an expansion of government health care for the poor, nutrition assistance, and other social welfare programs. The “both/and” mentally is one that should resonate with members of Congress from both parties. They write:

We celebrate the progress the world is making against hunger, poverty, and disease, and we are encouraged by the possibility of ending extreme hunger and poverty globally. Dramatic progress against hunger and poverty in our richly blessed country is also possible.

Catholics and other Christians should remain mindful that these budget discussions are taking place during Lent, a time when we are called to sacrifice and give alms. Imagine if we applied that notion to how we set federal budgets. Might the wealthy sacrifice some tax breaks to ensure young children have access to early childhood education? Perhaps major companies will back laws that guarantee greater parental leave, brining the United States up to par with other Western nations, with the aim of strengthening families? How might Catholics, during Lent, contribute to this conversation?

Catholics involved in the “Circle of Protection”:
Bishop Stephen E. Blaire, Bishop of Stockton and Chairman — 
Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development 
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS, Executive Director — 
Network, a national Catholic Social Justice Lobby
Patrick Carolan, Executive Director — 
Franciscan Action Network
Florence Deacon, OSF, President — 
Leadership Council of Women Religious
James F. Ennis, Executive Director — National Catholic Rural Life Conference
Sr. Carol Keehan, SC, President and CEO
 — Catholic Health Association
Bishop Denis Madden, Chairman — 
Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
Bishop Richard Pates, Bishop of Des Moines and Chairman — 
Committee on International Justice and Peace, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
Rev. Ronald J. Rooney, President — Catholic Association of Diocesan Ecumenical and Interreligious Officers
Stephen F. Schneck, PhD, Director — Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, The Catholic University of America
Very Rev. Thomas H. Smolich, S.J., President — Jesuit Conference
Rev. Larry Snyder, President — Catholic Charities USA
Carolyn Woo, President — Catholic Relief Services