Deal should not come at expense of the poor

With 2012 coming to an end, Washington is gripped by rhetoric and negotiations about the “fiscal cliff” on the horizon. Members of Congress, the media and interest groups are frantically talking about the economic and political ramifications of the automatic spending cuts and tax increases that will be triggered in the new year. But few mention the moral dimension of the decisions that Congress faces.

While the nation must decide what is necessary and what is expendable in our budget, many families find that they do not even have sufficient access to the food necessary to sustain life. 

More than a quarter of American children under the age of 5 live below the poverty line. Many of those children live in households that are food-insecure, meaning that they don’t know where their next meal will come from. Hungry people do not have influential lobbyists on Capitol Hill, yet they may be the people affected most by the decisions that are made this month. 

Last year, more than 65 religious leaders, relief and development agencies and other Christian organizations formed a “circle of protection” to advocate for poor and vulnerable people who were being ignored in the budget debate in Congress. We are united in the belief that the moral measure of the federal budget is how it treats those whom Jesus called “the least of these” (Matthew 25:45). As my colleagues within the circle of protection would agree, any deficit-reduction package must include protections for hungry and poor people.

Congress must reach a deal that is bipartisan, comprehensive and balanced. But it is also absolutely essential that deficit reduction not increase poverty. The proposals presented by President Obama and Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerSpeculation mounts, but Ryan’s job seen as safe Boehner warns Trump: Don't pull out of Korea-US trade deal GOP Rep: Ryan wasting taxpayers dollars by blocking war authorization debate MORE (R-Ohio) indicate movement toward a deal, but neither explicitly mentions protections for vulnerable people. We must fully protect core programs that support people who are poor. This principle has been honored in past bipartisan deficit-reduction agreements and articulated in recent bipartisan proposals, including the original Bowles-Simpson report. 

First, to meet the fiscal cliff challenge without sacrificing our national commitment to hungry people, the deal must include both modest tax increases and responsible spending cuts. Without sufficient new revenues, either much deeper spending cuts will be required or future deficits will remain nearly unchanged. Poor and vulnerable populations will be at great risk under either scenario. It is reasonable to enact some tax increases for those with the highest incomes, but Congress should not raise taxes on low-income households.   

Second, while cuts will be necessary for any deal to work, programs that are effectively helping working families are vital lifelines and must be protected. Any final agreement must include explicit protections for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), the refundable earned income tax credit and the child tax credit. This was a key item in the original proposal by the bipartisan Gang of Six, and millions of people could find themselves unable to eat regularly if these programs are cut. 

 Third, the budget deal must prevent further cuts to discretionary spending — recognizing that we have already cut more than $1 trillion in this spending over the coming decade. More than a quarter of non-defense discretionary spending supports domestic and international anti-poverty programs. If annually appropriated spending is reduced further, these programs are almost sure to suffer disproportionate cuts. While those programs represent only a sliver of the U.S. budget, they have proven themselves to be effective means of saving millions of lives while building a path out of poverty. 

Finally, any savings secured in Medicaid should protect the health needs of poor children and families and, along with Medicare, protect low-income seniors and disabled Americans. Reforms should control costs without jeopardizing health outcomes or access.

At the core of the budget debate is a deeply moral issue. We must prioritize those in need, especially during the season of Advent. If Congress and the president can reach a deal that meets these criteria, they will have our full support.

Beckmann, a Lutheran minister, economist and World Food Prize laureate, is president of Bread for the World, a collective Christian voice urging our nation’s decision makers to end hunger at home and abroad.