"Budgets are moral documents." So religious voices, rightly, have reminded us in recent months. Now, Catholic and Protestant leaders have launched an initiative called "Circle of Protection" to make federal antipoverty spending untouchable in the ongoing conversation about how to save future generations of Americans from crushing debt.
"As Christians, we believe the moral measure of the debate is how the most poor and vulnerable people fare," argues a statement on Circle of Protection's website. "Funding focused on reducing poverty should not be cut."
Protecting the status quo, however, isn't in the best interest of the poor. Americans spend a trillion dollars a year on more than 70 federal antipoverty programs, double what we spent in the late 1990s. Meanwhile the poverty rate has remained largely unchanged since 1970, and intergenerational dependence on government welfare is common.
The measure of our compassion for the poor should not be how much we spend on federal antipoverty programs. Compassion must be effective. We ought to define success by how many escape dependence on welfare to pursue their full potential as human beings. To measure our commitment to the poor by the number of dollars spent on antipoverty programs is to diminish human dignity.
Why should we flatten poverty to a merely material problem? Why should we delegate our personal responsibility for the poor to impersonal government programs?
In reality, we know that poverty in America goes far deeper than lack of material resources. Research shows poverty is linked strongly to the absence of a father in the home. Single mothers head more than 70 percent of the nation's poor households with children. The poverty rate for these households would drop by roughly two-thirds if the mother married the father. Tackling this kind of poverty is much more complicated than simply designating yet more federal tax dollars.
Budgets are indeed moral documents. But they are morally complex documents. As in so many areas of life, more than one principle is at stake. In solving the budget crisis, we need to account for serving the poor. Yet we also have to account for our overall stewardship of resources, commitment to the next generation, protection of national security, and respect for the proper roles of family, civil society and various levels of government.
These and other principles were highlighted in an exchange between Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee and chief architect of a spending plan to salvage our fiscal future, and Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Protectors of the status quo, including some Catholic leaders, have targeted Ryan, himself a professing Catholic. In an April letter to Archbishop Dolan, the Wisconsin congressman explained that his intention in the budget resolution was to better serve all Americans, especially the needy.
"Nothing but hardship and pain can result from putting off the issue of the coming debt crisis, as many who unreasonably oppose this budget seem willing to do," Ryan wrote. "Those who represent the people, including myself, have a moral obligation, implicit in the Church's social teaching, to address difficult basic problems before they explode into social crisis." If the nation's leaders do not solve the budget crisis, Ryan wrote, the poor and vulnerable would be the hardest hit.
In response, Archbishop Dolan thanked Ryan for his attention to the wide set of values in Catholic teaching: fiscal responsibility; the role of the family; human dignity; concern for the poor and vulnerable; and "subsidiarity" - the idea that higher levels of authority should respect those closer to the situation to exercise proper care.
As to how these principles should be implemented, "people of good will might offer and emphasize various policy proposals," Archbishop Dolan acknowledged. "The principles of Catholic social teaching contain truths that need to be applied."
Over the last half century, America has relied on one application of the poverty-fighting principle: redistributing resources through the welfare state to overcome material hardship. This may have raised the material standard of living for the poor, but it hasn't raised the standard of true human flourishing. And that approach has put us on an unsustainable path of runaway spending, leaving leaders such as Paul Ryan with a serious stewardship challenge. It's time for a new approach to serve the needy.
The good news? Americans can reconcile these multiple moral concerns in the budget debate, as shown by Ryan's plan and others - including The Heritage Foundation's "Saving the American Dream" proposal. Getting serious about our moral responsibility to future generations should make us more earnest about better serving the poor. Let's secure the safety net for those truly in need, and make sure it doesn't entangle people in government dependence.
Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.
First moved on the McClatchy News Wire service