I was very disappointed with the federal budget passed last week, as well as disappointed with much of what is being proposed for the 2012 budget. My disappointment is that too many of the cuts are directed at programs that help the poorest among us, both domestically and internationally. I find the call to shared burden an empty statement. Equally shared burden could mean finding how small a cut for those with few resources would result in equal health, educational, emotional, and economic burden when compared to a much larger cut for those with many resources. But the statement can also mean mathematically equal cuts that practically speaking have a much more negative impact on well-being measures for those with few resources. Still, my impression is that the recently passed budget does not even strive for a mathematically equal set of cuts as programs for the poorest among us were cut more drastically, while programs for the pentagon were increased.
I recognize this raises questions regarding the rights and responsibilities for government to engage in issues of individual well-being. I highly respect my libertarian friends who take a very proactive stance in helping those in need in our community by redirecting the funds freed up from tax cuts into social programs that reflect their deep passion and compassion to be servants. But I disagree that liberty dictates government can only enforce a right to property but otherwise has no rights and responsibilities to affect a civil society. On the other hand, I disagree with my socialist friends that common ownership and cooperative management of the means of production is the best ideal to which we can strive. In both cases I believe that as humans we too often fall to the more basic instincts of individualism that keep us from successfully working together in cooperation towards a strong civil society that benefits all.
The struggle over the budget, then, reflects a healthy dialog regarding the appropriate role of government in our individual and communal lives. In this conversation we are shaping just how much and what type of government involvement is appropriate to assist us as we also individually work towards the greater good of building a civil society for everyone. I do not believe the burden is exclusively or even primarily on the government to bring about the well-being of others. But there are many who because of where they were born, or the genes/environment they inherited, or the historical marginalization of their culture end up permanently suffering from poor education, poor nutrition and health, poor environmental conditions, and often as a result suffer from fatalism and hopelessness. They simply do not have the capital to improve their situation. Not-for-profits, both secular and religious, play a critical role in addressing these needs. But they are inadequate and must be supplemented by government programs that empower, enable, build upon, and are informed by the hard efforts of those in the trenches. While too often we speak of the removed government programming that stomps on the critical work of the individual and local organization bringing aid to those in need, ultimately successful federal government programs are the ones that are implemented by individuals within their role as government employees who know and are engaged with local communities. In my experience when the best such programs fail, it is often because of underfunding, not the inability of a federal government to successfully support social programming.
As the economy continues to improve, it is critical that attention turn to controlling the deficit. But to do so, I ask that we recognize that those who suffer endemic economical, educational, and health-based disadvantages have born more than their share of the hardships. I also ask us to take head the biblical call that we will be judged by how we care for the least among us. Instead, I ask those who are charged with the difficult responsibility of leading this debate to take a hard look to find programs that especially help those with significant capital already and to place more of the burden in this direction to address our unhealthy deficit levels.