US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Debt ceiling falls on the poor?

By Kevin Clarke | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

There are congratulations all around tonight in Washington as President Obama, Senate leaders Reid and McConnell and House Speaker Boehner appear to have come to an agreement that could raise the national debt ceiling next week and avoid a perilous and unprecedented U.S. default. The deal in broad strokes cuts somewhere between $2.4 and $3 trillion from the federal budget over the next ten years without raising an additional nickel in revenue (remember it is federal revenue that has collapsed in recent years owing to slap-happy tax cuts on the top end during the Bush administration and the fiscal devastation of the recent recession.) The legislative devil, as always, is in the details. We will have to wait until tomorrow to see if G.O.P. tea partiers and liberal Democrats can hold their collective noses long enough to pass the agreement.

President Obama boasted tonight that the deal represents "the lowest level of domestic spending since Dwight Eisenhower was president." Without significant modifications to Social Security, Medicare and defense spending and stripped of provisions for new (or more accurately re-activated old) revenue streams, the historic cost cutting could prove devastating to domestic social service programs and overseas humanitarian aid.

The U.S. bishops have already flatly denounced proposed cuts in the nation's comparably tiny foreign aid budget. In a July 29 letter to the House Appropriations Committee, Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on International Justice and Peace, and Ken Hackett, President of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), wrote that the foreign assistance appropriations bill proposed by a House subcommittee "makes morally unacceptable, even deadly, cuts to poverty-focused humanitarian and development assistance."

“These cuts will undermine integral human development, poverty reduction initiatives, and stability in the world’s poorest countries and communities....They could also weaken our long-term security, since poverty and hopelessness can provide a fertile ground for the growth of instability, conflict and terrorism.”

Speaking for the U.S. bishops, Hubbard and Hackett singled out as especially egregious cuts to funding for agricultural assistance for subsistence farmers, adaptation to climate change for vulnerable communities, medicines for people living with HIV/AIDS and vaccines for preventable diseases, assistance to orphans and vulnerable children, disaster assistance in places like Haiti, peacekeeping to protect innocent civilians in troubled areas such as Sudan and the Congo, and support to migrants and refugees fleeing conflict or persecution in nations such as Iraq.

Also casting a worried eye on the trade-offs for the debt ceiling hike will be the nation's hard-pressed state governors who can expect deep cuts in programs like job training, head start, nutrition support and Medicaid. They will either find a way to shoulder the burden on already overloaded state budgets or they may cut such programs out altogether. The fiscal shock treatment beginning in Washington may be coming at the worst possible time, beginning a vicious circle of government layoffs and spending reductions just as the nation teeters dangerously close to the edge of a double-dip recession or something much, much worse.