By David Beckmann
As an economist, I believe we should make decisions based on facts and data.
As a minister, I believe that our national budget is a moral document that reveals, starkly and undeniably, our nation’s priorities.
What I’ve learned in both roles tells me that we cannot fix our federal budget problems by cutting programs for our nation’s most vulnerable people and for some of the poorest people in the world–and we shouldn’t try to.
The House voted recently to cut significant amounts of money from such programs in the seven remaining months of fiscal year 2011. If the cuts were finalized, their effects would be felt immediately.
There is no doubt we must get our fiscal house in order. It’s not optional. But the fact is that the money spent on U.S. anti-poverty programs makes a great deal more difference to low-income families than it would to reducing the deficit. The amounts add up to a drop in a sea of red budget ink. But for millions of low-income Americans, they mean the difference between running out of food before the end of the month, and eating well enough to do one’s best at school or work.
The House package includes cuts to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which serves 9 million low-income babies, preschool children, and pregnant women each year, including half of all infants in the United States. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that each dollar of WIC funding saves $2 to $3 in Medicaid costs. And good nutrition in the first two years of life has proven critical–meaning that damage caused by malnutrition at this age is largely irreversible. WIC helps protect our children’s health and our country’s future.
The cuts passed by the House would also eliminate nutrition programs for 18 million of the world’s hungriest and poorest people, including 15 million people suffering from hunger due to natural disasters and conflicts, and 2.5 million children who get a meal at school thanks to the American people.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I visited the town of Thakurgaon, Bangladesh, where I had worked in 1975. Though the country is still very poor, programs such as those that provide school lunches have contributed to changes for the better that were evident all over town. Children looked healthy and wore colorful school uniforms.
When Jesus talked about how God will judge nations, he said God will focus on what we did or did not do for the neediest among us. Taking care of “the least of these” should be among our nation’s top priorities. It should not be among the first of our responsibilities in line for cuts.
I urge Congress not to attempt to balance the budget at the expense of vulnerable people. It won’t solve the problem, and it’s not what Jesus would do.
David Beckmann, World Food Prize laureate, is president of Bread for the World and a Lutheran minister.