Achieving Economic Justice for All
I applaud the "Call for Intergenerational Justice" and congratulate those who have developed it and signed it. Because there were two items that run contrary to positions I have taken publicly, I felt that I myself could not sign it. However, I agree with the intent and purpose of the statement. It is just the kind of statement Christians should be making to, as the "Call" states, "reform our culture of debt."
In addition to promoting faithful stewardship in our homes and churches, we must cut federal spending, including corporate and agricultural subsidies, the defense budget and salary increases of federal employees. We must not cut effective programs that empower poor Americans or contribute internationally to economic development or the advancement of health. Nor can we neglect appropriate investments in things like education and infrastructure.
ESA calls on concerned Christians to ensure that communities, churches, and the government:
Assist and Empower Poor Neighbors
Luke 10:29-37 and Matthew 25:31-46 describe what Christians' relationship should be with their "neighbors." At the end of the parable in Luke, Jesus asks, "who is the neighbor?" and the answer is, "the one who showed mercy." Similarly, in Matthew, Jesus describes service and compassion toward "the least of these" as actually being done for Jesus himself. As people of faith, we believe that policies and budgets should be formed with the poor in mind, rather than at their expense. There are important federal benefits programs which have been found to be effective in lifting people out of poverty and are cost-effective. They are currently in danger of losing funding unless we speak out to ensure they remain available for "the least of these" in our society.
- Food Stamps (SNAP): In 2010, SNAP helped 3.9 million people out of poverty.
- WIC (Women, Infants, Children): Provides counseling, healthy food, and healthcare to 9 million women and children under 5 who are at risk of poor nutrition.
- National School Lunch Program: Served nutritious lunches to 31 million lower income children in 2009 and cost $9.8 billion.
- Earned Income Tax Credit: Refundable tax credit that strengthens the family unit and lifted 6.6 million people out of poverty in one year alone, including 3.3 million children.
- Pell Grants: Provides scholarships to low-income high school students to attend college, giving these students access to today's most valuable means of production: an education. While there are some weaknesses in the Pell Grant program, the efficacy and importance of the program is such that those weaknesses should be identified and corrected, but the program must remain intact.
Reform the Tax Code
Tax Fairly We must reform the tax code. We should remove many special exemptions, end many special subsidies, and keep the tax code progressive. First of all, it is important to close tax subsidy loopholes. If as a country we want government to work, we all need to contribute. Every working American should contribute in some way toward the national deficit, and every corporation must pay their fair share. ESA urges policy that would:
- Implement a progressive tax code. Capital gains and dividends should be taxed at the same rate as income; and one or two more tax brackets should be added. For people making more than 1 million dollars, they could be taxed at a 40-45% rate, and for those making more than 5 million, it could be up to 50%.
- Combine both cuts in federal expenditures with increased taxes. Tax revenue should also come from a surtax, a financial transaction tax, and an estate and carbon tax.
Cut Defense Spending and Promote Peacemaking
The U.S. defense budget is roughly equal to all other countries' defense budgets combined. This makes up a huge portion of the United States' spending and does not reflect Jesus-shaped priorities. The defense budget should be cut by at least 100 billion dollars a year. In fact, a five-year freeze on defense spending, followed by increases that did not exceed the nations economic growth rate would save 1.1 trillion dollars through 2020. Perhaps we should steal from British Prime Minister David Cameron's playbook: Mr. Cameron postponed a costly nuclear submarine program in order to increase funds for economic foreign aid for poor countries. By so doing, we would acknowledge the truth of Admiral Mike Mullen's statement that "the single biggest threat to our national security is our debt."
Make Social Security Sustainable
Senior citizens used to suffer from the highest level of poverty in America. Today, less than 10% of our seniors live in poverty. Social security is the most successful antipoverty program in American history and we must ensure that it is sustainable. To do so, we can slowly increase the retirement age, modestly reduce benefits for more wealthy seniors, and increase the amount of income taxed to pay for Social Security. To ensure a sustainable economic future for all generations, ESA also recommends that:
- People with combined Social Security income and other outside income over 200% of the poverty level should have more of their Social Security benefits subjected to the federal income tax rate.
- Those whose income and Social Security add up to over 300-400% of the poverty level should have all of their Social Security income subjected to the federal income tax rate.
- The richest people should pay some Social Security payroll tax on all income above $190,000.
- Payroll tax should be progressively applied, over a ten-year period, to investment income.
- To reflect longer lifespans, the retirement age to receive full benefits should gradually increase.
- A reasonable increase to Supplemental Security Income (SSI) could be made.
Keep Healthcare Affordable and Accessible
We must control healthcare expenses, though it seems to be a problem without satisfactory political solutions. The United States currently spends about twice as much per person on health care as fifteen other wealthy nations, including Germany, Canada, Japan, France, the UK, and Sweden). Despite the challenges, as Christians we must find a way to respect individual choice, ensure quality health care for everyone, and stop spending an ever-higher percentage of our GDP on medical costs. There are three programs that should be maintained because of their contribution to the well-being of everyone, but particularly the poor, in their access to healthcare.
- Medicare and Medicaid: These programs ensure that the majority of seniors and the poor can afford quality healthcare.
- CHIP: Provides health insurance coverage for children of low-income families or those without health insurance. CHIP provided health insurance coverage to 7.7 million children in 2010.
Although these programs fill a critically-needed gap in health insurance coverage, without significant changes, the cost of social security and healthcare will consume every dollar in federal taxes by 2050. Our political conversations tend towards unhelpful "single-payer" versus "all privatized" arguments, but there are many successful healthcare models in between that could be implemented without a fundamental change. To reduce costs while maintaining programs to help the most vulnerable, systems to promote preventative care, reduce obesity and other systemic (and avoidable) health problems, and a shift away from the fee-for-service approach to care is essential. Finally, adopting a solidly pro-life approach to end-of-life matters is essential. In Fixing the Moral Deficit [link to book in bookstore], Ron Sider quotes his own living will: "The approach that I favor is one of aggressive treatment for potentially reversible illness, but predominantly comfort care for progressive and irreversible diseases."
The responsibility for correcting poverty and ensuring that all humans have equal access to means of production does not fall solely on the federal (or any) government. As Christians who seek to follow the way of Jesus, we must carefully examine our own spending and lifestyle to ensure that we are living generously within our means. While a tithe is a good place to start, many of us have found great freedom in slowly (or quickly) increasing the percentage of our giving, a graduated tithe. Ron Sider's highly influential book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger outlines some very easy ways that Christians can truly let Jesus shape their day-to-day living.
Check out ESA's Resources for Demanding Economic Justice.