Starving the poor to balance the budget is wrong

While the letter received major national media coverage as Rep. Boehner gave the commencement address at Catholic University in Washington, I’m disappointed that the Speaker and others who endorsed the House budget have failed to address our core argument. A budget that takes food from the poor, breaks our promise to the elderly and undermines pro-life values by cutting life-saving programs that help pregnant women, new mothers and children is immoral. Those who defended Rep. Boehner and the GOP budget argue that private charities or state governments can more efficiently help low-income Americans. But I’ve yet to see a convincing argument for how state and local responses could make up for a fundamental dismantling of our nation’s social safety net. The Wall Street Journal reported just this week that 22 states made cuts to public aid programs in 2010, according to a survey from the National Governors Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers.

At a time when struggling Americans need policies that serve the common good, political leaders are making choices that reflect grossly distorted values. Cuts to the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program that the House Appropriations Committee approved would force the program to turn away 200,000 to 350,000 eligible low-income women and children next year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) faces $2 billion in cuts. The Commodity Supplemental Food Program would be slashed by 22 percent next year, which means a loss of food for well over 100,000 low-income seniors. The Emergency Food Assistance Program, which provides emergency sustenance to shelters serving the poor across the country, would be gutted. These are not simply abstract numbers on a page. They will mean real hunger for American children, mothers and the elderly. Emergency food pantries are already overwhelmed, and even formerly middle-class families are turning to local charities already strained to the breaking point. It’s inconceivable that charitable giving, no matter how generous, could come close to making up for this loss.

While these budget proposals are shocking, it’s also discouraging to hear little more than silence from the White House. With campaign season approaching and poll numbers slipping, the Obama administration seems to speak loudly about the middle class but only mumble about the poor. Our nation’s diverse faith communities, thankfully, have not mumbled. From all denominations, religious leaders are challenging Congress to pass a moral budget that doesn’t provide tax breaks for the rich at the expense of the poor. As a Roman Catholic, I’m proud of the leadership of my bishops. Religious organizations are on the front lines in caring for the most vulnerable. They realize what’s at risk by eviscerating federal food programs when needs are more pressing than at any time in last forty years. I urge all members of Congress to join with our nation’s faith leaders by endorsing the Circle of Protection.

We need fiscal prudence to tackle budget deficits. But it's immoral to increase hunger in America when other options are available. At the very least, it's reasonable to avoid any cuts to food assistance until charities, states and local governments are in a stronger position to respond. Surely, this is common ground for compassionate conservatives and progressives on Capitol Hill and at the White House. Let’s reign in wasteful spending, end irresponsible tax breaks for the rich and make smart budget choices that reflect our nation’s highest ideals. Don’t vote to starve the poor.

Stephen F. Schneck is the Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.