World Vision US President Richard Stearns: A moral view of trimming the budget

President Obama has been roundly criticized for exaggerating the effects of the sequestration budget cuts. In reality, millions of people will suffer far greater consequences than even the most dire of the president’s predictions. 

Not all cuts are created equal. Obama may have exaggerated the significance of the sequestration on the federal workforce, but the effect of these budget cuts on the world’s poor will be deadly.

Automatic, across-the-board budget cuts will play out differently in the various federal departments. They could simply mean the national parks can’t clear as many hiking trails, or that bureaucrats might need to take some unpaid vacation. But in our foreign aid budget, which funds America’s responses to natural disasters and provides life-saving drugs to people with HIV and food to the world’s one billion hungry people, cuts will mean lost lives. 

International aid programs that reduce extreme poverty around the world and provide life-saving assistance are being cut by roughly 5.3 percent. The sequester has fallen disproportionately on foreign assistance, even though these programs amount to just 1 percent of the total federal budget.   

While cutting these programs will do very little to reduce the deficit, they will mean 2.1 million people will lose food aid, more than half a million children will lose nutritional interventions, 1.2 million people will not receive malaria bed nets, causing approximately 3,200 deaths, and HIV infections will spread as drugs to prevent mother-to-child transmission are cut from 67,200 pregnant women. 

These are moral concerns that go far deeper than a lost job. Cutting the budget to sustainable levels, and doing so responsibly, requires us to ask what kind of country we want to be. I am proudest of the America that assists people in need — not with handouts but with a hand up. In the president’s State of the Union address, he quoted a Burmese man who saw our country as a beacon of hope. “There is justice and law in the United States,” he said, “I want our country to be like that.” 

As the president said, “progress in the most impoverished parts of our world enriches us all.” Whether aiding people trapped by oppressive governments or tackling the HIV epidemic in Africa, we have a history of helping the world’s least fortunate. I believe our budget should reflect these values. 

That is why, as federal spending declines, we must protect programs that help the poor, here and around the world. In the U.S., a staggering one-half of our country is considered to be either in poverty or low-income. Around the world, roughly a billion people go to bed hungry each night. Another billion do not have access to clean drinking water. And 19,000 children die every single day of preventable causes. 

U.S.-funded programs addressing these issues are among the smartest dollars in the federal budget. We currently spend merely 1 percent of the federal budget on global humanitarian assistance. Yet the programs are saving countless lives. Our experience is that U.S. foreign assistance programs have rigor and accountability. These international programs increase our trading partners, providing new markets for American-made goods. And they reduce the need for expensive wars. Instead of seeing America in the face of a soldier wearing a helmet and holding a rifle, they see America as a friend wearing a baseball cap and offering a hand up. 

Our current budget impasse requires both Democrats and Republicans to let go of their spending ideologies in order to reach a deal. Democrats need to wake up to the fiscal disaster that awaits if we cannot demonstrate discipline in cutting costs. Admittedly, these will involve tough choices and sacrifices. 

Republicans need to recognize the necessary and legitimate role of government in protecting the poor, the sick, the elderly and the disabled here and around the world. Governments, not private citizens, are best able to work alongside other governments, to hold them accountable, to apply pressure when reforms are needed or to implement national programs. 

Private charitable funding by itself isn’t enough to meet the needs here at home and around the world. Americans give about 2 percent of their incomes to charity, totaling about $300 billion annually. This includes giving to universities, houses of worship, medical research, programs that help the poor and to the arts. Even if Americans increased their giving by 50 percent — an additional $150 billion — it would barely be enough to cover the U.S. food stamp program for just two years, let alone fund other essential safety net programs for the poor. Yes, we need our government to play their rightful role in these things. 

When I travel the world, and see the tremendous good that our nation does, I am proud to be an American. At our best, we use our country’s great strength to make life better for those who suffer — whether under political tyranny or the tyranny of poverty. As the budget battle brews this spring, our leaders need to address our fiscal troubles while also upholding the values that have always made our nation great. 

Stearns is president of World Vision US and author of The Hole in Our Gospel.