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Immorality of the Bush Budget

Op-Ed: A 'values audit' of the president's 2006 federal budget reveals a document that is deeply un-Christian.
The biblical prophets frequently spoke to kings and rulers. They spoke to "the nations," and the powerful were most often their target audience; those in charge were the ones called to greatest accountability. The Hebrew prophets usually spoke for the dispossessed, widows and orphans (read poor single moms), the hungry, the homeless, the helpless, the least, last, and lost. They spoke to a nation's priorities.

Budgets are moral documents. They reflect the values and priorities of a family, church, organization, city, state, or nation. They tell us what is most valued to those making the budget. It’s time to do a “values audit” of this budget, and a “moral audit” of our priorities. Who benefits in this budget and who suffers, who wins and who loses, what things are revealed as most important and what things are less important? America’s religious communities are required to ask of any budget, what happens to the poor and most vulnerable, especially the nation’s poorest children.

President Bush says that his 2006 budget "is a budget that sets priorities." Examining those priorities is a moral and religious concern. Just as we have "environmental impact studies," it’s time for a "poverty impact statement", which would ask the fundamental question of how policy proposals affect low-income people. Such a moral audit might reveal unacceptable priorities for many of us, including in the religious community where the president finds much of his political base. In a recent letter to the president, nearly 80 prominent evangelical leaders warned: “We know there will be powerful pressures, from some places, as you and the Congress work to reduce deficit spending, to cut even effective programs for poor people. We pray that you will not allow this to happen.”

But it is happening. In this budget, the cost of deficit reduction is mostly borne by those least able to bear the burden—the lowest-income families in America, rather than by those most able to afford it—the wealthiest Americans who benefit from the largest tax cuts. The budget projects a record $427 billion deficit, along with a promise to make tax cuts permanent. Does that make fiscal or moral sense?

Religious leaders have spoken clearly in past years about the perils of a domestic policy based primarily on tax cuts for the rich, deep program cuts for low-income people, and an expectation of faith-based charity to make up the huge gap. This budget runs directly counter to that religious wisdom. Billions of dollars are cut from programs that most directly impact America’s poorest families—in education, nutrition, child care, health care, affordable housing, job training, heating and cooling assistance, and in community and rural development. At the same time, mere millions of dollars are added as increases to a number of faith-based programs focusing on marriage, fatherhood, and abstinence. On the street, that would be called “chump change.” The warning that faith-based initiatives should provide a partnership with effective government anti-poverty programs—and not a substitute—has not been heeded. And the added tax cuts for the rich merely compound the moral and biblical offense.

Worst of all is the politicization of the faith-based initiative, with the bulk of support going to the most conservative evangelical groups that politically support the administration rather than to the most effective faith-based initiatives regardless of political affiliation. And the drastic cuts in community block grants, education, and housing programs that go to support the efforts of faith-based organizations may ultimately result in a net loss for religious charities.

Low-income people should not be punished for decisions that placed us in financial straits. Rather than moving toward a "living family income" this budget stifles opportunities for low-income families, which are vital for national economic security. Our future is in serious jeopardy when one in three proposed program cuts are to education initiatives (after a highly touted "No Child Left Behind" program); when fewer children in working poor families will be included in Medicaid; when the food stamps that supplement families’ grocery budgets are threatened; and when affordable housing is put out of reach. Cutting pro-work and pro-family supports for the less fortunate jeopardizes the common good. And all this while defense spending rises to $419 billion (not even including any additional spending for the war in Iraq), with an overall increase of 41 percent in military expenditures during the Bush years.

It is time to speak clearly about a budget lacking moral vision. A budget that scapegoats the poor, fattens the rich, and asks for sacrifice mostly from those who can least afford it, is a moral outrage. These budget priorities would cause the prophets to rise up in righteous indignation, as should we. Our nation deserves better vision. Morally-inspired voices must provide vision for the people when none comes from its leaders.

The president said this budget represents his priorities. But are these the priorities of the American people? It’s time for a national “moral values” debate about the president’s budget.
Jim Wallis is author of God’s Politics (HarperSanFrancisco), editor of Sojourners, and convener of Call to Renewal.
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