In the recently published collection of excerpts from William Sloane Coffin's speeches and sermons - Credo - appears this gem: "When the rich take from the poor, it's called an economic plan. When the poor take from the rich, it's called class warfare. It must be wonderful for President Bush to deplore class warfare while making sure his class wins."
The administration's 2005 federal budget amply illustrates Bill Coffin's point. As The Wall Street Journal put it, "The budget reflects the president's top political priorities - taxes and security - at the expense of other domestic programs."
Once again, the highest priority is more tax cuts for the wealthy, which have become the centerpiece of the Bush domestic policy. The budget proposes to make permanent the tax cuts from 2001 and 2003 that benefit high-income people, while not extending tax breaks for middle-income families. The second priority is further huge increases for the military and fighting terrorism. The budget proposes a 7 percent increase for military spending and a 10 percent increase for the Department of Homeland Security. And all that's before returning in the fall for what the administration admits will likely be as much as $50 billion in additional funding for the continuing occupation of Iraq.
And what of domestic priorities - especially the vast array of programs that benefit poor and working families? According to The New York Times, the budget calls for the elimination of 65 programs and cuts in 63 more. Those to be eliminated altogether include community development block grants, HOPE VI public housing renovation, rural housing and economic development, and juvenile crime prevention grants. Those cut include a 7 percent reduction for the Environmental Protection Agency, along with programs to deal with dropout prevention, support for local police and firefighters, and funds for guidance counselors in elementary schools.
Many other programs are frozen - which means that when inflation and an increase in those needing services are factored in, in reality they're cut as well. Freezing the maximum Pell Grant level at a time when more students are trying to attend college means smaller grants. Freezing funding for after-school programs means that more than 1 million children won't have access any longer to those programs (I wonder how they will occupy themselves in those critical post-school hours?). Freezing Head Start funding means fewer low-income kids getting the school preparation that poor children most need.
HEARD ENOUGH? It gets worse. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analyzed thousands of pages of Office of Management and Budget computer runs and discovered that starting in 2006 and continuing over the next five years, the administration proposes to cut overall funding for domestic discretionary programs other than homeland security by $50 billion - an 11.5 percent cut from today's level. To take one example, cuts in the Child Care and Development Block Grant would mean that the number of children from low- and moderate-income families who receive childcare assistance would be cut by at least 200,000, up to as many as 365,000 children by 2009.
Of course, the budget also reveals a record deficit of $500 billion dollars, deficits that will guarantee even more radical cuts for poor families in the years ahead. A hard analysis of the federal budget reveals that the primary reason for the astounding deficit and the resultant cuts for the poor is more than just the huge increases for war and security. The biggest cause for greatly reduced federal revenues is the Bush tax cuts, which they now want to make a permanent fixture of U.S. tax policy.
That's why a little story from Alabama this year, only briefly covered by the U.S. media, is so significant to us at Sojourners. Susan Pace Hamill is a law professor who went to seminary and decided to apply Judeo-Christian ethics to tax policy. Her conclusions caused a political conversion in her state's conservative Republican governor, who proposed far-reaching tax reforms in the state that would relieve tax burdens for the working poor while increasing the tax share of its wealthiest citizens and business interests. One woman had stirred a revolutionary tax debate in the Bible Belt. Against a well-financed campaign, the governor's reforms went down to defeat. But Alabama may be only the beginning....
Is helping the rich the best way to benefit the poor? It's time for those who believe so to just come out and say it. Then the rest of us, like Susan Pace Hamill, can apply biblical ethics to the issue. As for a national debate about tax policies and Christian principles in an election year, I say bring it on.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.