Evaluating President Bush's 2006 Budget
by Ron Sider
"When the king is concerned with justice, the nation will be strong, but when he is only concerned with money, he will ruin his country."
Every budget is a moral document. Your family budget reflects what you value. President Bush's proposed budget for fiscal year 2006 tells us what he values. As the House and Senate reshape the president's proposed budget, they are telling us what they value.
Christians must start with a set of biblically grounded moral norms in evaluating this budget. Most broadly that means we must be pro-family and pro-poor, pro-life and pro-creation care. In this essay I focus largely on the question of economic justice for poor people.
Hundreds of biblical texts tell us that God has a special concern for the poor and demands that rulers seek justice for the poor. The new official public policy document of the National Association of Evangelicals declares that "God measures societies by how they treat the people at the bottom" and says the Bible calls us to "work toward equality of opportunity." It urges Christians to "work in the political realm to shape wise laws that protect those trapped in poverty and empower the poor to improve their circumstances."
Thinking in a Christian way about political proposals like the 2006 budget requires more than biblical norms. We need to understand the context. Several things are especially important: 1) recent budget deficits (first because of the 2001 recession and then because of huge tax cuts) have become so large that many economists worry they may severely damage future economic well being; 2) military expenditures have greatly increased in the last few years; 3) American society has become increasingly unequal in the last several decades; and 4) the number of people in poverty and without health insurance has increased in all the last three years.
From 1977 to 1994, the poorest 60 percent of all Americans actually lost in terms of after-tax income while the richest 1 percent gained 72 percent. Even the poorest 20 percent benefited a little from the economic growth of the later 1990s. But the richest 20 percent got most of the benefits. From 1979 to 2001, the annual after-tax income of the richest 1 percent grew by 139 percent (from $294,300 to $703,100) while the bottom 20 percent saw a small gain of 8.5 percent (from $13,000 to $14,000).
Already in 2000, the U.S. was the most unequal society of all industrialized nations. In fact, the richest 1 percent had more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.
The Bush tax cuts made things even more unequal. Just 5 percent of the huge tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 went to the bottom 20 percent (an average of $27 per person), while 70 percent of all the tax benefits went to the richest 20 percent – 26 percent went to the top 1 percent (an average of $34,992 per person!).
The number of people in poverty has grown by more than 1 million each year for the last three years: 17.6 percent of America's children are in poverty; 45 million Americans lack health insurance.
So what does the president's budget do? It provides for more tax cuts for the rich, expands the military budget, and cuts dozens of programs that help poorer Americans. Does God really want poor Americans to bear the burden of paying for the war in Iraq and balancing the federal budget?
Even though the number of Americans lacking health insurance stands at the highest point ever, the president proposes cutting Medicaid (health insurance for the poor) by $45 billion in the next 10 years.
Even though the president has made education a priority and increased federal funding for education in his first four years, he now proposes cutting the education budget by $20.5 billion over five years. (Two bright spots: he does propose substantially increasing funding for Pell grants to help poor kids afford college and adds a new $500-million program to encourage teachers to work in low-income schools.)
Even though the WIC program (a nutritional program for pregnant and nursing mothers and their young children) has proven to save money in the long run, the president proposes cutting the program by $658 million in the next five years: 670,000 fewer individuals would be helped in 2010 than in 2005.
Even though low-income Americans find it increasingly difficult to afford housing, the president does not even propose enough funds to continue to serve the people who today receive Section-8 housing vouchers (which help low-income people pay their rent): 370,000 fewer households would receive rental assistance in 2010.
Even though childcare costs for the working poor continue to rise, the president freezes childcare funding for the next five years: 300,000 fewer children will receive childcare assistance in 2010.
Even though the number in poverty keeps rising, the president proposes $600 million in cuts in food stamps over five years: 300,000 people would lose food stamps.
At the same time, the military gets more money and the rich get more tax cuts. The military budget is now about 15 percent higher than it was on average during the Cold War. Anybody who thinks it needs to be that high should insist that richer Americans, not the poor, should pay for it.
In spite of the huge budget deficit, the president's proposed budget includes tax cuts that will cost $1.4 trillion over 10 years.
Especially striking are two tax cuts that would get phased in from 2006 to 2010: Once fully in force, the 10-year (2010-2019) cost of these two tax cuts is $146 billion. And 97 percent of all the benefits from these cuts go to the richest 4 percent of households with incomes over $200,000 a year; 54 percent go to households with annual incomes of more than $1 million.
Do evangelical Christians really want to support tax cuts for millionaires paid for by cuts in food stamps, healthcare, housing vouchers, and nutritional programs for poor Americans? Is that the meaning of compassionate conservatism? If evangelicals want to implement the new NAE declaration's call to empower the poor to improve their circumstances, they will have to demand that the president and Congress reprioritize the 2006 budget. Eliminating proposed tax cuts for the richest 5 percent of Americans would make available tens of billions of dollars to empower the poor.
How can that happen? Actual adoption of the 2006 budget is a lengthy process that will not be complete until October of this year. If enough of us write letters to the president, our Senators, and our representatives in the House, they will change the proposed budget. To contact the president, congress, and state legislators, go to http://www.congress.org/congressorg/home.
"Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked" (Psalm 82:4).