Let’s Not Abandon the Poor and Hungry
By Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi – This past spring, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a federal budget that should send shivers down the spines of advocates for food justice. The budget, crafted by Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, now the Republican candidate for vice-president, is offered as “a path to prosperity,” but non-paritsan economists have described it as “a path to ruin.” While the budget’s proponents say their aim is to get the federal deficit under control, on ethical grounds the budget gives grounds for deep concern.
Commentators have pointed out the impact this budget will have on poor sections of our population. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman describes it as “simultaneously ridiculous and heartless.” According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the budget would gain 62% of its savings by slashing programs that benefit low-income groups. The budget would take big bites out of SNAP, the food stamps program that helps to alleviate hunger in America. The budget cuts funding for food stamps by $133.5 billion over the next ten years, more than 17%. At a stroke, this could knock eight to ten million people off the program, pushing them over the cliff into malnutrition or even starvation.
Paul Ryan says his economic vision is inspired by his Catholic faith, but the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops thinks otherwise. In a letter to the House the bishops wrote that “deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility efforts must protect and not undermine the needs of poor and vulnerable people. The proposed cuts to programs in the budget reconciliation fail this basic moral test.” Though Buddhism does not have a central council like the Conference of Bishops, Buddhists of conscience should deplore a budget that delivers such hard blows to hungry children, single mothers, the unemployed, and those with low-paying jobs.
The deficit hawks who rally behind the House budget insist that the shortfall in government spending on food aid could be compensated for by religious institutions offering more in charity to the hungry. But the Christian advocacy group Bread for the World estimates that to replace the funding withdrawn from SNAP, every synagogue, church, mosque, and temple in the country would have to raise an additional $50,000 every year over the next ten years. This would have a devastating impact on their efforts to address increasing need.
Fortunately the proposed budget has not yet been approved by the Senate, but in the near future we can expect sustained efforts to ram it through. The big argument in favor of cutting spending on social services is the need to reduce the deficit. However, while deficit reduction is certainly critical, programs that help the poor should be spared as a matter of moral principle; for many people these programs are almost literally a matter of life and death. Contrary to the popular myth of the Cadillac-driving “welfare queen,” those who depend on social services usually work hard, often for long hours five or six days a week. The crux of the problem is simply that many jobs don’t pay subsistence wages.
In the final analysis, the debate over how we should reduce the national deficit—whether by cutting social safety nets or by increasing revenues and shrinking defense spending—boils down to the bigger question of the kind of society we want to create. Our answer to this question in turn rests on two very different assumptions about human nature and the means to establish the good society.
In one vision, human beings are essentially self-interested agents driven by a narrow concern for their own well-being. The key to social progress is untrammeled competition in the global free market. When the free market operates without constraint, the talented will flourish and their prosperity will trickle down to those at the bottom. In this way, a free market also conduces to the moral good.
In the other vision, human beings are essentially social creatures who thrive best in community. Competition may be a spur to economic growth and technological innovation, but such values as compassion and cooperation, which express our essential interconnectedness, should take precedence. Society flourishes best when we all flourish together, and often this is only possible when government actively intervenes to safeguard the vulnerable from the vagaries of an unregulated market.
Between these two visions, it's the second that corresponds with Buddhist values and a Buddhist perspective on the role of the state, as seen in the ideal figure of the “wheel-turning king,” who protects all in his realm, ensuring that all citizens receive the basic material requisites of life. Transposed to a modern democracy, this task would naturally fall on the elected government, which is thus obliged to protect the vulnerable and alleviate poverty.
Of course, the final solution to the problem of poverty does not lie in programs that distribute provisions to the poor, but in good jobs that pay adequate compensation, along with guarantees that even the most menial types of work pay a truly living wage. The key to good jobs is opportunity, and in today’s world the doors of opportunity are opened by education. It thus falls to the government—whether at the federal or state level—to improve the standards of public education and guarantee that all children have access to good schools with rigorous programs and capable teachers. But for such social transformation to be possible, leaders with courage, vision, and conviction must step forth to fearlessly promote wise and compassionate policies. This above all is the crying need of our time.
(This essay is a condensed version of a longer blog entry entitled “Bussing for a More Just Budget,” posted September 13th, at http://buddhistglobalrelief.wordpress.com/.)