If the White House is right, there soon will be massive disruptions in social services for the needy and others, depending on the outcome of a jousting match the Obama Administration is having with Republicans in Congress.
Cuts in defense and domestic spending – $85 billion in total – will take effect on Friday, March 1. The White House issued a summary of how the cuts – known as sequestration – could impact education, environment, national security, public health, small business, law enforcement, transportation safety, and research.
On a national level, it claims that more than 100,000 formerly homeless people would be removed from their current housing and emergency shelter programs; up to 373,000 seriously mentally ill adults and emotionally disturbed children “could go untreated,” and federally-assisted programs like Meals on Wheels would have to serve 4 million fewer meals to senior citizens.
Further, the White House says, Title I education funds would be eliminated for more than 2,700 schools, “cutting support for nearly 1.2 million disadvantaged students.”
On the state level, the White House analysis shows cuts in education, work-study jobs, job search assistance, child care, children’s vaccinations, public health, domestic violence programs, and nutrition assistance.
In California, for example, expected cuts of $87.6 million would put about 1,210 teacher and aide jobs at risk, meaning that about 187,000 fewer students would be served. “In addition, California will lose approximately $62.9 million in funds for about 760 teachers, aides, and staff who help children with disabilities,” the White House says. Further, in Texas, “up to 2,300 disadvantaged and vulnerable children could lose access to child care, which is also essential for working parents to hold down a job.” And in New York, reduced funding for vaccinations would mean that 7,170 children could be at risk of contracting diseases like measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, whooping cough, influenza, and Hepatitis B.
The impending cuts – an arrangement that was originally proposed by the Obama Administration – have some religious leaders so concerned that they issued a letter this week imploring political leaders to remember the human aspects of any cost-cutting.
“We understand that the country's fiscal health will require further cost savings and additional revenue,” says the Feb. 25 letter from the Circle of Protection Campaign, made up of 65 Christian leaders who speak out against budget measures that hurt the poor. “To reduce the deficit, we need revenue and savings that don’t increase poverty.”
Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., Chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was among the signers of the letter. The Bishops Conference helped set up the Circle of Protection Campaign.
“Whatever decisions are made [should] be made in a fair and equitable way and not in a way that will hurt the poor,” Bishop Blaire said in an interview.
Another signer said that “people at the margins are going to suffer” from sequestration.
“It’s one thing to have some defense industry mogul not get as much profit as he or she might otherwise have gotten, but it’s quite another to speak about women and children not getting their milk subsidies, to have kids not getting their lunch,” said Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director of the Catholic Social Justice Lobby Network, and another signer of the Circle of Protection letter.
Sister Campbell said it’s hard to know how the cuts are going to be implemented. “If it’s school lunch programs, if it’s an across the board cut, then that leaves out a percentage of kids,” she said in an interview. “Do you get that much cut in the amount of food they’re going to get or do you just leave off some of the kids in the classroom from getting food?” she wondered. “Then you get things like Section 8 vouchers to pay rent for low income folks. Does that mean your rent gets reduced and you’re subject to eviction when we have such little housing stock anyway for low income folks? Does it mean that fewer people are going to get their vouchers? We don’t know. But there is a meat-axe approach to cutting folks who don’t have other resources to afford it.”
Patrick Carolan, executive director of the Franciscan Action Network, which represents Franciscan communities and their concerns in Washington, worried that cuts will “drive more people into poverty” and lead to more job layoffs. “I think it’s going to put more burden on an already-overburdened social services system,” he said. “It will drive us into a recession.”
He predicted that the food programs and soup kitchens run by Franciscan and other communities and parishes will experience increased calls for service.
Catholic Social Teaching
The sequester also threatens people’s jobs through partial government shutdowns. Government workers may be required to take a mandatory furlough day one day per week, resulting in a 20% reduction in annual salary.
Dr. Kevin Schmiesing, a research fellow at the Acton Institute, suggested ways Catholic social teaching might be used to guide the cuts, which, he pointed out, are only a slow-down in the rate of growth in federal spending. “Much more dramatic cuts and/or revenue increases are needed to reach a position of fiscal responsibility,” he said in an interview. But the principle of “solidarity,” from Catholic social teaching, he suggested, would guide specific cuts in spending to be made in a way that “expresses shared responsibility for our nation and its problems.”
“For example, firing a lot of lower staffers while preserving intact the comfortable salaries and benefits of the higher-level staffers might be seen as a violation of solidarity,” he said. “It puts all of the sacrifice on one segment of the population.”
Schmiesing suggested too that cuts should be “managed in a way that encourages rather than undermines the institutions that operate at a level more local than the federal government.” This would be based on the principle of subsidiarity, which, to cite one example, would be violated by “closing a military base – cold turkey – that serves as the foundation of a local community comprised of families, churches, and businesses.”
In addition, budget decisions “must keep foremost in mind the effect on those who are most vulnerable,” Schmiesing said. “It would not be in line with Catholic social teaching (and its principle of a preferential option for the poor) to preserve inviolate the comfortable salaries of upper middle class bureaucrats while at the same time firing” lower-wage office staff.
The continuing threat of budget cuts to programs that serve the poor also raises the question of charities striving to rely less on government aid. But charities and private organizations already do a substantial amount, says Bishop Blaire.
“Of all the services that are provided for the poor in this country, putting together all the parishes and churches and social agencies, the direct money that comes from them is a small percent of what is spent,” he said. “The remaining percentage is government money,” which comes through contracts the government issues to charities that serve the poor – an arrangement that gives the government good value for the money, according to Bishop Blaire. “The money that comes from these organizations could never meet the needs,” he said.
Sister Campbell said that her organization found that “many of the works that are done in low income communities take a small bit of federal money and leverage it with grants, foundations, volunteers and penny pinching to make these tremendously effective programs. But no one was solely dependent on government funding.”