Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Undeserving Poor?
Here's an important piece in the Washington Post today about the silence of our most prominent religious groups on pending federal budget cuts aimed at the poor:

When hundreds of religious activists try to get arrested today to protest cutting programs for the poor, prominent conservatives such as James Dobson, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell will not be among them.

That is a great relief to Republican leaders, who have dismissed the burgeoning protests as the work of liberals. But it raises the question: Why in recent years have conservative Christians asserted their influence on efforts to relieve Third World debt, AIDS in Africa, strife in Sudan and international sex trafficking -- but remained on the sidelines while liberal Christians protest domestic spending cuts?

Conservative Christian groups such as Focus on the Family say it is a matter of priorities, and their priorities are abortion, same-sex marriage and seating judges who will back their position against those practices.
Jim Wallis, editor of the liberal Christian journal Sojourners and an organizer of today's protest, was not buying it. Such conservative religious leaders "have agreed to support cutting food stamps for poor people if Republicans support them on judicial nominees," he said. "They are trading the lives of poor people for their agenda. They're being, and this is the worst insult, unbiblical."

At issue is a House-passed budget-cutting measure that would save $50 billion over five years by trimming food stamp rolls, imposing new fees on Medicaid recipients, squeezing student lenders, cutting child-support enforcement funds and paring agriculture programs. House negotiators are trying to reach accord with senators who passed a more modest $35 billion bill that largely spares programs for the poor.

At the same time, House and Senate negotiators are hashing out their differences on a tax-cutting measure that is likely to include an extension of cuts in the tax rate on dividends and capital gains.
Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said the government's role should be to encourage charitable giving, perhaps through tax cuts.

"There is a [biblical] mandate to take care of the poor. There is no dispute of that fact," he said. "But it does not say government should do it. That's a shifting of responsibility."

The Carpetbagger, where I read about this piece, points out that Focus on the Family devotes a lot more space and emphasis on their website to urging repeal of the Estate Tax, an assessment that only affects the very rich and would seem to be more central to the Club for Growth or ATR than an ostensibly values-focused group. And Focus actually seems to denigrate the Food Stamp program, which is among those currently under attack in Congress. (Carpetbagger somehow fails to mention what I presume is the other big priority: stopping that insidious War on Christmas. What's more important than indulging the persecution fantasies of a majority group that holds near-total power? But I digress.)

I'll readily grant that this looks like hypocrisy, and I think the point Jim Wallis makes--that this bunch has agreed to support policies that hurt the poor in return for promises to put social-issue reactionaries on the bench--is spot on. But I'm more interested in how it is that so many people of faith, many of whom do extensive charity work in their own communities (and through their churches in particular), can support measures that redistribute wealth upward. In my opinion, this is distinct from skepticism about government being "not really capable of love," or even being not really capable of running programs well (a point one AIS reader has made from time to time). It's tantamount to a values determination that capital gains tax cuts are more important than income supports for the working poor.

Aside from the hard-to-prove (or disprove) argument that they're simply unaware of the debate, the best explanation I can think of--irony notwithstanding--is that these voters share the social Darwinism of the Grover Norquist/Stephen Moore branch of the Republican Party. Just as they see homosexuality as a choice that arises out of one's inner moral lack, perhaps they blame the moral failings of the poor for their poverty. Why the obvious disconnect between this worldview and the actual language of the Bible–-where poverty seems to get a lot more ink than homosexuality, and those who suffer its effects come in for mercy, not scapegoating--doesn't trouble them, I'm not sure. And how they square this with whatever friends, neighbors, family members and fellow congregants who have lost it all to economic dislocation, medical catastrophe or other forces out of their control (but not necessarily out of the government's), I haven't the foggiest. But the Tony Perkins quote in the Post article above comes across as almost Clintonian, doesn't it?

As for what the cuts mean in the secular world, check out this recent Times guest op-ed, by a colleague of mine in the NYC wonkosphere, and this excellent recent American Prospect piece on what these actions communicate about Republican priorities. The latter article does a superb job making both a moral and an economic case against this set of cuts. In that these programs support the upward aspirations of low-income working families--and that pending demographic and economic changes will demand that we get the most value out of every working American--the cuts are wrongheaded disinvestments in the workforce. And on values, the authors rightly conclude that the cuts "betray the deepest commitment conservatives claim to honor: hard work." Democrats would be wise to pick up both threads, which run through pretty much the entirety of Bush/Cheney/DeLay/Norquist policymaking.

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