Monday, July 25, 2011

Cutting Compassion From the Budget

Budget cut (noun) 1. the act of reducing budgeted expenditures

"The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; 
it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."     --Franklin D. Roosevelt  
What could be a more noble cause than giving books, free of charge, to kids who otherwise could not afford them?  That’s what the “Reading Is Fundamental” (RIF) program has been doing since 1966, forty four years of opening the minds and hearts of impoverished boys and girls, making reading accessible to all, regardless of income.  A public-private partnership, RIF has done an amazing job. As of 2010, its 400,000 volunteers distributed 16 million new books to 4.5 million low income children in all 50 states each year.  

“Distributed” is the key word here because as of last March, RIF’s funding by the United States Department of Education was zeroed out, cut to nothing, as a part of the stopgap federal spending bill passed by the Congress and signed into law by President Obama.   Savings to the taxpayers? $25 million.  Since about 90 million Americans actually pay some federal income taxes, that works out to a savings of twenty seven cents apiece. 

It’s important to keep such budget numbers and budget realities in mind as our leaders in Washington rush to embrace even more draconian cuts to the federal budget in the months ahead.  For now its cut, cut, cut.  Cut to the bone. Cut back. Slash. Reduce. Eliminate.  As the debt ceiling and budget debate rushes towards the zero hour of August 2nd and the pols scramble to come up with a plan, the numbers they are suggesting in cuts to government programs like RIF are staggering.  The highest figure I’ve seen so far is one suggested by President Obama last April: 4 trillion dollars in federal budget reductions over the next 12 years.  That’s $4,000,000,000,000.  That’s a lot of cuts.

The popular things for politicians and pundits to trumpet is how such slash and burn budgeting will reduce our national debt and save taxpayers money.  True and yet: absolutely no one in power who so casually bandy about such numbers is ever specific about what these cuts will mean for the people who benefit by what Uncle Sam does with its revenue.  It is as if the federal budget is some abstract idea, disconnected from the reality of life in our country for so many of our citizens who depend upon federal dollars for an astonishing variety of programs, services and support structures.           

These cuts may be framed as fiscally necessary.  But let’s at least get real and face into about what these cuts might mean. Like no more books for poor kids.  Less food stamps for the fifty million Americans who struggle with hunger every day. More expensive health care for the poor, the elderly and the unemployed.  Less money for basic research and innovation through agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.  Less money to support veterans as they return home from the battlefield.  Less money for national parks and space exploration.  More expensive individual payments to Medicare and raising the age of eligibility for seniors to 67.  Defunding National Public Radio and the National Endowment for the Arts.  Closing community health centers that provide basic medical care for the poor.  Less funding for developing solar, wind and other alternative energy.  Less money to combat air and water pollution. 

All of those cuts are on the table and many, many more.  All of the spending cuts will directly translate into a huge impact upon the citizenry and in particular the most vulnerable.  The federal budget is not just an equation, not merely numbers or dollars and cents.  What Uncle Sam spends is about people and making this human life better.  So when all the cutting is finally done, let’s confess that we will not be a better country for it.  We may get our books in order, but the danger is that our national fabric will be torn asunder.  We will be less compassionate. Less generous. Less community minded.  Less united.  We’re not just cutting funds.  We’re cutting the national spirit too.

As a person off faith committed to hope, I want to be more hopeful about this crisis, want to have faith that the politicians and the citizenry will rise up.  Will cut wisely and agree to pay more in taxes, even just a little more, to ensure that the basic social safety net of our nation can survive intact.  But right now the atmosphere in Washington is anything but thoughtful or prudent.  And even though polls show the majority of Americans want a more balanced approach to the budget, Obama and the Democrats and Boehner and Cantor and the Republicans have all got the knives out. Nothing is safe or sacred anymore, save perhaps The Department of Defense. 

So for now it is more bombs and less books.  Is this really who we want to be as America?    

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