Budget cuts hurt poor, say religious groups

February 22, 2011

Get ready for more undernourished infants, dangerously cold homes and
disease-stricken communities in developing countries if proposed
federal budget cuts become law.

That's the message coming from
left-to-center religious advocacy groups, who've been rallying
supporters and blanketing Capitol Hill since budget debates kicked into
high gear in mid-February.

Declaring budgets to be "moral
documents," they're prodding lawmakers to honor their respective faith
traditions by sparing poverty-related programs from the cost-cutting
axe.

But efforts to save funding are meeting resistance—not only
from number crunchers but also from others with different views of what
constitutes moral budgeting.

The conscience-tweaking initiatives
are popping up just as lawmakers work to shrink trillion-dollar annual
deficits. In mid-February, 300 leaders from Catholic social ministry
organizations left a Washington-area conference to lobby their
representatives and senators. So­journers, an evangelical ministry with a
social justice focus, is raising money for bracelets and ads asking,
"What would Jesus cut?"

"Our job is to provide the moral voice
that says, 'You don't cut the poor first,"' said Kathy Saile, director
of domestic social development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic
Bishops. "But thus far in this recession and economic crisis, the only
people who've been asked to sacrifice have been the poor."

Advocates
like Saile are denouncing House-passed plans to cut about $5 billion
from poverty-focused international aid, $2.3 billion from affordable
housing, $1.75 billion from job training, $1 billion from community
health centers, $900 million from refugee programs and $390 million from
low-income heating assistance.

Under current proposals, programs
that target poor people would face cuts of much deeper proportion than
other areas of the budget, according to Stephen Colecchi, director of
the USCCB's Office of International Justice and Peace.

Moral
arguments aren't just niceties for lawmakers to consider once the
hard-nosed economic analyses are done, according to Wayne Fields,
executive director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion &
Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. On the contrary, he
said, budget pressures and religious lobbying efforts can help reveal a
public figure's depth of commitment.

"It's a test of how serious
our politicians are when they declare their commitments to religious
values and to faith communities," Fields said. "It's a test of how much
they actually listen when those communities witness to the deepest moral
and ethical concerns of the faith."

Others, however, see a
different moral imperative: fighting wasteful spending. The
1-million-member TeaParty.org group en­courages "traditional family
values" and calls for an end to federal deficits. Its pres­ident, Dale
Robertson, says government-funded antipoverty programs are vulnerable to
fraud and abuse in the absence of sufficient accountability.

For
example, he cites the scandal-plagued Global Fund, which receives
taxpayer dollars for overseas projects and recently reported $34 million
missing. "It's wrong, it's uncharitable and it's unchristian to give
good money after bad," Robertson said. "It's almost like you're
destroying this nation because you're not solving the problems. . . .
Until we begin to hold [programs] accountable, cut everything."

[Church
World Service has joined several other humanitarian agencies in
appealing to House leaders in a Feb­ruary 22 letter saying the nation's
proposed spending plan for 2011 would severely curtail U.S. relief
efforts. The letter posed a scenario in which "in the next major global
humanitarian crisis—the next Haiti, tsunami or Darfur—the United States
might simply fail to show up."]

Religious advocates bristle at the suggestion that government funding implies wastefulness.

World
Vision, a Christian relief organization, gets about 10 percent of its
budget from the government, according to Robert Zachritz, its director
of advocacy and government relations. He says poverty-focused
international programs achieve strong returns on investment. Cutting
poverty-focused international aid by 26 percent as proposed, he said,
would hamper disaster response efforts and would remove 13 million
people from feeding programs overseas.

Calls to preserve funding
for poverty assistance programs are coming from a diverse swath of
religious communities, including the Religious Action Center of Reform
Judaism and Hindu American Seva Charities. Yet while lobbyists hear a
divine mandate, Americans on the whole don't seem convinced.

In a
February survey by the Pew Research Center, global poverty assistance
was the only area out of 13 categories in which more respondents called
for spending cuts (45 percent) than called for a spending increase (21
percent). What's more, cuts to global poverty assistance were equally
favored by Catholics, evangelicals, mainline Prot­estants and people
with no religious affiliation.

Socially conservative lobbyists are
largely staying out of debates about anti­poverty programs. Groups such
as the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family and the Traditional
Values Coali­tion have focused efforts on defunding Plan­ned
Parenthood, an abortion provider.

People on both sides agree that
if antipoverty programs suffer substantial cuts, religious organizations
will bear more responsibility for feeding the hungry and meeting other
basic needs. But some advocates for sustaining public funding say such a
backup plan is more ideological than realistic.

"Churches simply
have not put in their budgets the kind of funding that would be required
to feed 9 to 10 million people," said Robert Parham, executive director
of the Baptist Center for Ethics in Nashville, Ten­nesee. "So it's
dishonest for politicians to shift the responsibility away from the
government to the church."  —RNS