Posts tagged with: United States federal budget

My contribution to today’s Acton News & Commentary. Sign up for the free weekly Acton email newsletter here.

Protect the Poor, Not Poverty Programs

By John Couretas

One of the disturbing aspects of the liberal/progressive faith campaign known as the Circle of Protection is that its organizers have such little regard – indeed are blind to — the innate freedom of the human person.

Their campaign, which has published “A Statement on Why We Need to Protect Programs for the Poor,” equates the welfare of the “least of these” in American society to the amount of assistance they receive from the government — a bizarre view from a community that trades in spiritual verities. Circle of Protection supporters see people locked into their circumstances, stratified into masses permanently in a one-down position, thrown into a class struggle where the life saving protection of “powerful lobbies” is nowhere to be found. And while they argue that budgets are moral documents, their metrics for this fiscal morality are all in dollars and cents.

Not only does the Circle of Protection group appear to be oblivious to the power of private charity and church-based outreach to the needy, but they seem to have no hope for the poor outside of bureaucratic remedies. This is a view of the human person not as a composite of flesh and spirit, but as a case number, a statistic and a passive victim of the daily challenges and troubles that life brings.

In response to the Circle of Protection campaign, another faith group has formed with a very different outlook on the budget and debt debates that will consume the political energy of the country in the months ahead. Christians for a Sustainable Economy (CASE) argue for policies that are focused less on protecting poverty programs and more on protecting the poor (I am a supporter). In a letter to President Obama, CASE wrote:

We need to protect the poor themselves. Indeed, sometimes we need to protect them from the very programs that ostensibly serve the poor, but actually demean the poor, undermine their family structures and trap them in poverty, dependency and despair for generations. Such programs are unwise, uncompassionate, and unjust.

This is what Fr. Peter-Michael Preble was getting at when he observed that “… the present government programs do nothing but enslave the poor of this country to the programs and do nothing to break the cycle of poverty in this country.” This is not, he added, an argument to eliminate all government assistance but rather for “a safety net and not a lifestyle.”

In discussing the relative merits of the Circle of Protection and the Christians for a Sustainable Economy campaign, Michael Gerson wrote that “the Circle’s approach is more urgent.” Arguing against “disproportionate sacrifices of the most vulnerable,” he asserted that “public spending on poverty and global health programs is a sliver of discretionary spending and essentially irrelevant to America’s long-term debt.”

It’s a big and growing “sliver.” According to a Heritage Foundation study of welfare spending, of the 70-odd means-tested programs run by the federal government, “almost all of them have received generous increases in their funding since President Obama took office.” The president’s 2011 budget will increase spending on welfare programs by 42 percent over President Bush’s last year in office. Analyst Katherine Bradley observed that “total spending on the welfare state (including state spending) will rise to $953 billion in 2011.”

Instead of more billions for failed poverty programs, CASE argues that “all Americans – especially the poor – are best served by sustainable economic policies for a free and flourishing society. When creativity and entrepreneurship are rewarded, the yield is an increase of productivity and generosity.” Underlying this is a belief that the human person is able to freely and creatively anticipate what life may bring, rather than wait around for a caseworker or a Washington lobbyist to intervene.

That freedom explains why some people, even in difficult economic times, can move up the income scale despite assertions that they are among the “most vulnerable.” A U.S. Treasury study showed that “nearly 58 percent of the households that were in the lowest income quintile (the lowest 20 percent) in 1996 moved to a higher income quintile by 2005. Similarly, nearly 50 percent of the households in the second-lowest quintile in 1996 moved to a higher income quintile by 2005.” In an analysis of income inequality and social mobility, economist Thomas Sowell wrote that there is a confusion “between what is happening to statistical categories over time and what is happening to flesh-and-blood individuals over time, as they move from one statistical category to another.”

Income mobility is debated endlessly by economists, but it is the existential reality for countless Americans who have ever strived for something better — or suffered a setback in their hopes. Yet the one sure thing that will stifle this mobility is an economy in decline, with job creation slowed, and encumbered by ever higher federal budget deficits and debt. And that’s what we’ll get more of if the Circle of Protection’s prescriptions for a “moral budget” hold sway.

When economic systems break down, as they are now unraveling in some European welfare states, those who will be hurt first and hardest will be the poor, the working family living from paycheck to paycheck, the pensioner – those operating at the margins. If we fail to come to grips with the reality of our potentially ruinous fiscal trajectory, we will all learn, as other countries are now learning, what “truly vulnerable” means.

I had the pleasure of appearing on Relevant Radio last Friday to talk to Sheila Liaugminas on her show, “A Closer Look.” I discussed the idea of “intergenerational justice,” a term favored by evangelicals (Roman Catholics tend to talk about “intergenerational solidarity”), and how that concept relates to much of today’s discussion about the federal budget.

One thing you hear from many is that we need a “both/and” solution: we need to both cut spending and raise revenue in order to close the annual deficits. I’m not really convinced of this, in part because the federal government has historically shown that increased revenue always results in increased spending. The government spends what it takes in, with a little bit more to boot. There has to be something structural and meaningful to stop this from continuing to happen, especially since we can’t count on the political culture to do so itself. Whether that structural obstacle is a balanced budget amendment or some other kind of binding agreement, something like that has to be put in place.

I don’t think it’s fair on the other side, though, to say that closing some tax loopholes, making tax avoidance more difficult, and simplifying the tax code is tantamount to “raising taxes” either. So in that sense there might be a case for raising revenues in this limited sense if it gets the tax system focused on what it is supposed to do (raise revenues) rather than using it as a tool for rent-seeking, social engineering, and pandering to special interests.

What’s more important than the question of revenues vs. cuts, however, is recognizing that the size of the federal government has stayed about roughly constant when you look at it in terms of tax receipts relative to GDP. Anthony Davies does a nice job illustrating this. He points out that the government basically takes in amounts roughly equal to 18% of GDP (+/- 2%). So that’s essentially what the government needs to learn to live on. By contrast, we’re spending about 24% of GDP this year, and that number only goes higher as entitlement promises come due.

So how about this for a both/and solution: we cut spending to get within a couple of percentage points of 18% of GDP and we focus on tax policies that will grow GDP in a sustainable way in the longer term.

Blog author: jmeszaros
Wednesday, July 20, 2011

John Boehner recently stated, in the debt-ceiling talks, that “We’re going to continue and renew our efforts for a smaller, less costly and more accountable government,” which most Americans agree with in principle.  However, citizens say that keeping benefits the same for the three big programs, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, is more important than taking steps to reduce the budget deficit by a margin of 60 percent compared to 32 percent for Social Security, 61 compared to 31 percent for Medicare, and 58 compared to 37 percent for Medicaid.

So Americans purportedly want thriftier government, but still want benefits? What gives?  Part of the problem, according to James Kwak, is “the idea that there is one thing called ‘government’–and that you can measure it by looking at total spending–makes no sense.”

What Kwak means is that total expenditure is a misleading measure of the “size” of government. He presents this example:

The number of dollars collected and spent by the government doesn’t tell you how big the government is in any meaningful sense. Most government policies can be accomplished at least three different ways: spending, tax credits, and regulation. For example, let’s say we want to help low-income people afford rental housing. We can pay for housing vouchers; we can provide tax credits to developers to build affordable housing; or we can have a regulation saying that some percentage of new units must be affordably priced. The first increases the amount of cash flowing in and out of the government; the second decreases it; and the third leaves it the same. Yet all increase government’s impact on society.”

So increased spending (or decreasing it) does not necessarily mean the “size” of government has grown (or shrunk). Think how regulation is synonymous with big government, but it does not involve a tax or direct spending of any kind.

In fact, “big” government is often viewed through the lens of regulation, rather than cost. For instance, Kwak explains:

When people say government is too big, they often have in mind something like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau–a regulatory agency that tells businesses what they can and can’t do…the CFPA’s budget is about $300 million, or less than one-hundredth of one percent of federal government spending.”

Again the divergence between cost and “bigness” is seen.  The CFPA may be viewed as “big,” intrusive, and unnecessary but it is not large in terms of cost like Social Security and Defense spending.

Kwak states, “popular antipathy toward the regulatory state has been translated into an attack on popular entitlement programs.”  Many people dislike certain government regulations and, due to the budget debate, dislike of regulation, the amount of government spending, and specific government programs may have become accidentally intertwined.

As mentioned before, Americans view Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as important and worth preserving.  Kwak elaborates: “Rationally speaking, your opinion about Social Security or about Medicare should be based on how much you put in and how much you get out–not on the gross size of the program, and not on how big the rest of the federal budget is. Yet instead the total size of the budget has become the driving force behind potential structural changes in Social Security and Medicare.”

Kwak suggests that “we should make decisions on a program-by-program basis, just like a business is supposed to do.”  His advice is: “If there’s a program that the American people, through our democratic system, agree will provide benefits greater than its costs, we should do it, independently of the existing spending level. And if there’s a program that isn’t covering its costs, we should kill it.”

Instead of focusing on a generality, “government size”, our elected officials should evaluate programs on a cost-benefit level.  Then government agencies that are viewed as too costly or intrusive (the CFPA) could be eliminated and government programs that are viewed as beneficial (SS, Medicare), but need reform, can be focused on in an unbiased way and not be harmed by the “too big” generality.

Jordan Ballor, in a blog post for Acton, wrote: “All government spending, including entitlements, defense, and other programs, must be subjected to rigorous and principled analysis.”  Indeed, although the American people think Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are beneficial, 52 percent think Social Security needs significant reform, 54 percent think Medicare needs reform, and 54 percent, likewise, for Medicaid.  However, without having a clear definition of what “too big” means, successful retooling will be difficult to achieve.

Ballor added: “This means that the fundamental role of government in the provision of various services must likewise be explored. This requires a return to basics, the first principles of good governance, that does justice to the varieties of governmental entities (local, regional, state, federal) and institutions of civil society (including families, churches, charities, and businesses).”  True reform requires not simply legal and budgetary change, but a reevaluation of what entities perform certain services, as Ballor suggested.

The Acton Institute is committed to real budget reform, and, to make sure that programs, like Social Security, are evaluated fairly and reformed properly, the United States should make sure it clearly defines the costs and benefits of individual programs before taking drastic action.

Blog author: eamyx
Thursday, July 14, 2011

Back in February 2008, then candidate for president Barack Obama addressed a crowd at a General Motors Assembly Plant in Janesville, Wis. He said,

…I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper– that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue out individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. E pluribus Unum. Out of many, one.

It is ironic that Obama preached a “we’re-in-this-together” economic philosophy yet three years later, Main Street is carrying Washington’s debt burden.

Debt negotiations are currently at a deadlock in Washington over taxes. President Obama doesn’t want to follow through with $4 trillion in spending cuts without a $1 trillion tax increase, while Senate Democrats are asking for a whopping $2 trillion in new taxes. Democrats also do not want to sacrifice entitlement programs. Top leaders worry they will not be able to reach a deal in time to avoid a government default. With the predicted default deadline of August 2 creeping around the corner and unemployment on the rise at 9.2 percent, citizens feel a sense of urgency about the debt crisis.

When Obama said “I am my brother’s keeper,” what did he really mean? If the government is to act as our brother’s keeper, this means it should be accepting responsibility for the welfare of all citizens. Raising taxes to cover up Washington’s nasty spending habits is certainly not accepting any responsibility.

If the government was really acting in the best interest of its citizens, it would stop raising taxes. According to the Tax Foundation, Americans will need to work from January 1 to April 12 before they have earned enough to pay off their taxes. Tax increases may seem like a quick way to reduce the deficit as opposed to spending cuts alone, but the bottom line is that Washington has a spending problem, not a revenue problem. A Goldman Sachs report found that tax increases usually fail to correct fiscal imbalances and are damaging to economic growth while spending cuts correct fiscal imbalances and boost growth. Milton Friedman explains in his essay titled Fallacy: Government Spending and Deficits Stimulate the Economy why government spending does not mean “stimulus”:

Getting the extra taxes, however, requires raising the rate of taxation. As a result, the taxpayer gets to keep less of each dollar earned or received as a return on investment, which reduces his or her incentive to work and to save. The resulting reduction in effort or in savings is a hidden cost of the extra spending. Far from being a stimulus to the economy, extra spending financed through higher taxes is a drag on the economy.

The $2 trillion tax increase Senate Democrats are pushing has the potential to suffocate economic growth and job creation, which would not be good news for 14 million unemployed Americans. Today, the Great Recession now has more idle workers than the Great Depression. An article in The Fiscal Times claims the employment level is nowhere near where it should be for a typical recovery:

In a typical recovery, we would have had several hundred thousand more hires per month than we are seeing now—this despite unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus (including the rescue of the automobile industry, whose collapse would likely have lost a million jobs).

If spending binges don’t work for a family, why would they work for a government? When a family spends more than they are making, the only sensible solution would be to cut spending. Bureaucrats should take House Minority Leader Eric Cantor’s advice and be willing to share the sacrifice:

Everyone understands that Washington has been on a spending binge of late and we’ve got to start spending money the way taxpayers are right now and that’s learning how to do more with less.

The debt crisis is not just an economic hazard but a prodigious moral issue of poor stewardship as explained in an Acton commentary by Jordan Ballor and Ray Nothstine titled The Fiscal Responsibility of Mall Rats and Bureaucrats:

Responsible stewardship of one’s material resources is a consistent and recurring biblical theme. At the conclusion of a parable on stewardship, Jesus said, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Luke 16:10 NIV). We shouldn’t be duped into granting the use of greater and greater portions of our paychecks to a federal government that has been unfaithful with what it has already claimed.

Our economy will continue to hobble along until Washington is willing to truly act as a brother’s keeper in showing that it too can share the sacrifices necessary for getting spending under control. Until then, we will pay the price for Washington’s fiscal irresponsibility and millions of Americans will continue to struggle.

Both the religious right and left have weighed in during the heated federal budget battle as Congressman Paul Ryan’s proposed budget has seen its fair share of support and criticism from many religious leaders.

In a recent article appearing in Our Sunday Visitor Congressman Ryan explains how he used Catholic social doctrine to help draft his proposed budget opening up with his views on it should be utilized by politicians:

Catholic social doctrine is indispensable for officeholders, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to understand it. The wrong way is to treat it like a party platform or a utopian plan to solve all of society’s problems. Social teaching is not the monopoly of one political party, nor is it a moral command that confuses the preferential option for the poor with a preferential option for bigger government.


Policymakers apply timeless principles to policies that are necessarily limited by changing circumstances. The judgments of equally well-intentioned citizens may differ. Usually, there isn’t just one morally valid policy. Instead, there are better and worse ones calling for respectful dialogue and thoughtful judgment. The moral principles are dogmatic; the political responses are prudential.

Throughout the article Congressman Ryan defends his proposed budget by articulating how the poor and vulnerable will benefit, how it preserves human dignity, that it creates budgetary discipline (which according to the Congressman is a moral imperative), and abides by the principle of subsidiarity.

Furthermore, Congressman Ryan argues the U.S. government cannot keep the principles promoted by Catholic social doctrine if the country defaults stating: “Preferences for the poor, solidarity, subsidiarity, the common good and human dignity are disregarded when governments default and bankrupt economies stop producing. Economic well-being is a foundation stone of an enduring ‘civilization of love.’”

Here at the Acton Institute we also understand the importance of passing a federal budget that is morally sound. We wrote our Principles for Budget Reform where readers can find articles, videos, and blog posts in support of four vital principles.

To read the full article click here.

Click here to read the Acton Institute’s Principles for Budget Reform.

Jim Wallis: Paul Ryan is A Bully & Hypocrite

Not so long ago, the Rev. Jim Wallis was positioning himself as the Chief Apostle of Civility, issuing bland pronouncements about all of us needing to get along. His “A Christian Covenant For Civility,” barely a year old, is now looking more tattered than a Dead Sea Scroll. Of course, he took up the civility meme back when he was hoping to brand the Tea Party as a horde of un-Christian, poor-hating libertarian bullying racists who enjoy nothing more than kicking widows and orphans with their hobnailed jackboots. Here he is last year warning America about the hostile Tea Party threat: “Honest disagreements over policy issues have turned into a growing vitriolic rage against political opponents, and even threats of violence against lawmakers are now being credibly reported.”

Ah, but the Apostle of Civility fled the agora. Right about the time that the vicious and violent attacks started on elected officials like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. It’s routine anymore to hear thuggish threats at state capital protests such as, “The only good Republican is a dead Republican” — and worse. (see video at bottom of post but be warned: rough images and language.)

Now, Wallis has returned, wearing the robes of an Old Testament Prophet, the scourge of those who would oppress the poor and bargaining unit members in threatened civil service classifications. The tip off was the title of his latest Huffington Post article, “Woe to You, Legislators!” Nice touch, that. More, from Wallis, who channels Isaiah:

You may think that my language sounds too strong: “bullies”, “corrupt”, “hypocrites.” But listen to the prophet Isaiah:

“Doom to you who legislate evil, who make laws that make victims — laws that make misery for the poor, that rob my destitute people of dignity, exploiting defenseless widows, taking advantage of homeless children. What will you have to say on Judgment Day, when Doomsday arrives out of the blue? Who will you get to help you? What good will your money do you?” (Isaiah 10:1-3, The Message)

Ryan’s budget seems to follow, almost line by line, the “oppressive statues” Isaiah rails against. Ryan’s budget slashes health care for the poor and elderly by gutting Medicaid and undermining Medicare, and cuts funding for food stamps, early childhood development programs, low-income housing assistance, and educational programs for students.

Phrases such as “gutting Medicaid” are not designed to inform, but to inflame. This is the work of a demagogue. (more…)

Blog author: lglinzak
Thursday, April 7, 2011

With the ongoing budget battle and the possibility of a government shutdown looming, the Acton Institute has released its “Principles for Budget Reform.” The Acton Institute developed four key principles to reforming the federal budget that will be important to not only providing a sound fiscal budget but a budget that also has a strong moral basis.

In addition to the four principles, readers can also find staff written commentaries that are related to each principle, additional articles written by Acton staff, related blog posts, video of Rev. Sirico discussing morality in the federal budget, and audio from a radio appearance made by Rev. Sirico talking about the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign.

As the federal budget process continues, the Acton Institute will continue to update its “Principles for Budget Reform” with the most up-to-date articles available.

To navigate to the “Principles for Budget Reform” webpage click here.